Bill no mates: Growing opposition to the trade union bill from across the political spectrum
Civil liberty groups, voluntary organisations, NGOs, academics, employer organisations, groups representing users of public services, and industry commentators across the UK have joined the TUC in voicing their opposition the government’s Trade Union Bill. A selection of their comments is provided below.
Former Business Secretary Vince Cable has told the Guardian the Bill marks a “vindictive, counterproductive” attack on trade unions, adding it is “very provocative, highly ideological and has no evidence base at all”. In this joint statement Cable and TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady highlighted what could be done to strengthen, rather than disrupt, industrial relations:
“An opportunity is being missed to work with unions on a positive and forward-looking basis. Unions represent a substantial and, now, growing proportion of the workforce. Many good employers, private and public sector, work constructively with unions to raise productivity, and thence pay.”
Meanwhile the Regulatory Policy Committee, the independent body appointed by the government to scrutinise regulatory proposals, has slammed the government’s impact assessments of the trade union proposals as ‘red – not fit for purpose’. The Committee found the government at fault for failing to adequately make the case for changes in the law on trade union picketing and protests, including the ruling that would make unions give 14 days’ advance notice of whether their members will use Twitter or Facebook during protests.
On the use of agency workers replacing striking workers the Committee found that the government’s impact assessment undermines its own central assumption, as “it provides reasons why it might be more beneficial to the employer to take the short-term costs associated with a strike instead of seeking temporary workers”. And on the government’s proposals to tackle intimidation of non-striking workers through strict picketing and protest laws, the Committee noted:
“There is little evidence presented that there will be any significant benefits arising from the proposal… the definition of the problem currently appears weak and must be substantiated, so that the costs of this measure can be assessed against benefits”.
Rt Hon Carwyn Jones, First Minister of Wales, condemned the Bill in a statement by the Welsh Government as having potential “to cause significant damage to the social and economic fabric of the UK”. The First Minister also raised concerns that agency worker proposals “will prove socially divisive, lead to more confrontational relationships between employers and workers, and ultimately undermine rather than support public services and the economy”. Commenting on the verdict of the Regulatory Policy Committee, the First Minister slammed the short-lived consultation period for the Bill. Jones said:
“[A] deeply worrying impression is created that the UK Government is simply not interested in evidence on the impact of these proposals.”
Concerns over devolutionary legitimacy were also raised, as the Bill is a ‘non-resolved matter’ yet would apply to ‘important public services’ such as health services, education (for under 17s) and fire services, “which are all plainly devolved”.
The Welsh First Minister was joined by his Scottish counterpart Nicola Sturgeon MSP, who stated in her Programme for Government 2015/16 announcement earlier this month:
“…my government will vigorously oppose the UK government’s proposed trade union legislation, which seeks to undermine the rights of unions to fairly and reasonably represent their members”.
Labelling the Bill “an attack on workers”, The Scottish government’s Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training Roseanna Cunningham MSP has also called the proposals “utterly regressive” and warned they could “completely undermine the positive partnership” the Scottish government has built up with trade unions “over a number of years”.
Civil liberties organisations Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights have announced the Trade Union Bill represents a “major attack on civil liberties in the UK” earlier this week, adding:
“By placing more legal hurdles in the way of unions organising strike action, the Trade Union Bill will undermine ordinary people’s ability to organise together to protect their jobs, livelihoods and the quality of their working lives.”
The Equality Trust has also warned the Bill poses a real threat to labour market equality:
“If the Bill reduces the strength of union membership, or removes the ability of unions to conduct industrial action, this may well reduce the bargaining power of unions. Given their importance in reducing inequality, this would be an extremely damaging development.”
Warning that the reforms are an “outdated response to the challenges of the modern workplace”, Peter Cheese, Chief Executive of leading HR professional body CIPD said:
“We need to see more consultation and ongoing dialogue, and engagement with, the workforce, rather than the introduction of mechanisms that reflect the industrial relations challenges of the 1980s. To jump straight to legislating strike activity without considering this seems to be a significant step back.”
The Police Federation has questioned the government proposals, noting that to “more intrusively supervise strikes” would add more pressure to the already overstretched police force:
“As we have seen in recent weeks, some forces may not even be able to investigate burglaries in future … This proposal for officers to more intrusively supervise strikes indicates more clearly than ever that what we need is a wide-ranging debate to inform both the future direction of the police service and the public’s expectations as to what we are able and simply unable to do.
Police officers join the job to keep the public safe and lock up criminals but doing that job effectively is getting close to impossible for many officers around the country.”
The Police Federation’s comments reinforce evidence from new polling from YouGov and the TUC that suggests more than three-quarters of the public think proposals to make it compulsory for unions to give 14 days’ notice if they intend to use a loudspeaker or carry a banner during a strike are a “bad use of police time”.
Northumbria Police and Crime Commissioner Vera Baird has criticised the Bill for its time-wasting proposals:
“I want local police officers out on the streets of Northumbria doing what they do best – protecting and supporting our communities, not arresting someone because unions haven’t given two weeks’ notice if they intend to use a loudspeaker or carry a banner during a strike… Why do the police need to know what unions are planning to post on social media during a strike two weeks in advance? It is a waste of police time.”
Director of HR at Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust Dean Royles has recognised public frustration on “the impact of poor industrial relations,” but noted in his article for HR Magazine:
“[T]hose of us charged with providing regular, reliable, and safe public services know how finely balanced employee relations are. Many places in the public sector have taken a partnership approach to industrial relations, working with trade unions to make change in a reasoned, sensible way. This has paid dividends such as improved patient care, a better employee voice and staff engagement, as well as agreements on pay awards protecting lower paid employees.”
On the government’s proposals aimed at limiting strike opportunities, Royles signalled the risk posed to the quality of NHS services:
“… industrial relations are too important to the services we provide to let their future be shaped by rules aimed at overcoming poor examples.”
Meanwhile the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) has published analysis which found that trade unions are saving the NHS at least £100m every year.
Janet Davies, Chief Executive & General Secretary of the RCN has spoken out against the Bill:
“The government claims that the Trade Union Bill will save public sector money but it will actually have the opposite effect…The health service can ill-afford further damage to staff morale, or to squander even more money on recruitment costs. The trade union bill is bad for staff, employers and most importantly it is bad for patients.”
Over 100 academics from Universities across the UK slammed the Bill as “not backed by evidence” in their letter to the Guardian on 17 August. The academics described the provisions of the Bill as “draconian” and its rationale “perverse”. They noted the importance trade unions have in the economy and our democratic society:
“Trade unions in Britain are not too strong, but too weak. They provide an important voice for the expression and protection of workers’ terms and conditions of employment, and are a countervailing force against the excesses of employer power. They can also contribute to innovation, skills-upgrading and workplace performance. Given the fact the UK labour market is already one of the most flexible and least regulated in the global economy, evidence in support of the benefits of the bill is seriously wanting.
By further undermining the collective bargaining power of unions it will feed into the labour market by increasing endemic low pay and insecure terms and conditions of employment among non-unionised workers.”
Professor Miguel Martinez Lucio of Manchester University and the Fairness at Work Centre (FairWRC), who also signed the letter, added this in his response to the government consultation:
“[The Bill] represents one of the most serious assaults on human rights and worker rights in the democratic sphere of the UN. …In effect, it is to create an imbalanced relation and undermine the process of dialogue central to our society, and through industrial relations, our economy”.
On proposals to allow agency workers to replace striking workers, Head of Policy at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation Kate Shoesmith told The Recruiter:
“We are not convinced that putting agencies and temporary workers into the middle of difficult industrial relations situations is a good idea for agencies, workers or their clients … Our members want to provide the best possible levels of service to their clients but they also have a duty of care to the workers they provide. We hope that the government’s consultation will ensure that the implications for all parties – employers, agencies and agency workers – can be evaluated.”
In their written response to consultations on the Bill the National Association for Voluntary and Community Action (NAVCA) told the government:
“We believe that citizens should be supported and encouraged to campaign as a way to hold the executive to account, prevent bad law making and improve government … This bill goes against the democratic traditions of our society… it does create an unfortunate impression that the Government is using their legislative power to silence dissenting voices.”
Workforce engagement organisation the IPA has branded the Bill “unnecessary and potentially counterproductive in undermining good industrial relations”, and notes in its letter to government:
“IPA’s research and work with employers has shown that trade unions are essential actors in the labour market. They play a crucial role in ensuring corporate accountability in the UK by strengthening workplace democracy, and building more equitable, inclusive and sustainable workplaces.”
Citing risks associated with agency worker proposals, the IPA told the government:
“There is a risk that the quality of service or product will be affected, that health and safety will be compromised… Where the focus should be on improving management/trade union relationships following a dispute in order to avoid further disruption, the hiring of agency workers could further undermine the levels of trust required to do this.”
The Women’s Budget Group also responded to the government consultation, stating aspects of the Bill are “likely to raise issues of concern for users of public services and in particular women”. The group added:
“[T]here has been insufficient thought given to the equality impact of these proposals and insufficient time allowed for meaningful consultation or public debate.”
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has raised similar concerns, noting research by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and BIS (the very same Department behind the Bill):
“‘Around one in nine mothers (11%) reported that they were either dismissed; made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not; or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job; if scaled up to the general population this could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year … It is clear that despite legislation designed to protect them, pregnant women and new mothers can find their rights at work threatened and may need support of their trade union to ensure they are able to secure financial stability for their family. Any restriction in relation to ballot thresholds may make it more difficult for a minority group in the workplace to secure support and take action, although they are among the groups most likely to be discriminated against at work.”
The Bill puts forward a number of proposals that would significantly limit workers’ and union rights and is set to have its second reading in the House of Commons next week. Meanwhile, a number of organisations have come out in praise of trade union contributions to workplaces across the country.
Leading academic and automotive industry expert Dr David Bailey of Aston Business School commended the work of trade unions in the Birmingham Post:
“I would also add in another factor for the industry’s success – the flexibility and hard work of workers and unions in pulling out all the stops to help make the UK a competitive place in which to assemble cars and source components (something the media all too often fails to recognise).”
Terry Walker, former Chair of Avon Fire and Rescue Authority, called on the government to “listen to those of us with experience as employers who have worked with Trade Unions” in his message passed onto the TUC last week:
“I served for 34 years as the Chair of Avon Fire Authority and employed a large number of staff within Avon Fire & Rescue Service. All of my experience tells me that instead of attacking Trade Unions, the government should be looking at measures which enhance the vital role that Unions play within the workplace.
In my frontline experience as an employer, I have seen the real benefits and value that can be gained by organisations working in partnership with Trade Unions. There is absolutely no doubt that, by working in partnership with the Fire Brigades Union, we were able to make Avon Fire & Rescue Service a better, safer and fairer service for staff and the public which we served.”
You can add your own voice to the growing opposition to the Bill in a number of ways: write to your MP, sign our petition, join the national march and rally outside Conservative Party Conference on 4 October, and download our campaigning materials to make your voice heard.
You’ll be in good company, unlike the Trade Union Bill.
****Note: quotes from the Royal College of Nursing and the Roseanna Cunningham MSP were added to this post on 14 September 2015. Quotes from the Northumbria PCC and the IPA were added on 16 September 2015.****