Unite general secretary Len McCluskey vowed that Unite would not allow the Trade Union Act to stop the union from fully supporting the workers it represents, after many of the provisions of the Act came into force today (March 1).
Among the measures going into effect are new industrial action thresholds, which mean that all ballots must have a minimum 50 per cent turnout, while industrial action ballots in defined important public services will require an additional 40 per cent ‘yes’ vote. These public services include education, fire, health, transport and border security.
Ballot mandates will now expire after six months, and unions must now give 14 days of notice before any action is taken, up from seven days. Unions are also now required to give greater detail about planned action to be taken during any given dispute.
A new requirement that a picket supervisor be appointed also comes into force alongside other measures further restricting picket lines.
The Act has been criticised by people and organisations across the political spectrum – it has even been derided as ‘not fit for purpose’ by the government’s own regulator and denounced as ‘needlessly ideological’ by former business secretary, Vince Cable.
McCluskey called today “a dark day for basic rights in this country.”
‘Gift to the bad bosses’
“Once again, Conservative laws are a gift to the bad bosses as they make it harder for working people to get a fair hearing,” he added. “They have priced working people out of the tribunal process and now they want to intimidate their unions into inaction.
“Well, that is not going to happen at Unite,” McCluskey vowed. “There is no way that this union will allow a Conservative or any other government to further stack the dice against working people.”
He explained that Unite has already organised itself to be able to see of any attacks and to ensure that “our members will be defended to the hilt when they need to be.”
“Our rules have been changed to ensure that we can defend members even when the law has been twisted to prevent this, and our £35m strike fund ensures that no Unite member will ever be starved back to work,” he noted. “Added to this our regional dispute teams will provide the rapid and expert support workers need when faced with trouble in the workplace.”
The Welsh government is also launching its own attack against the Act, as it argues that parts of the Act can be reversed in devolved public services such as the NHS, education, local government and the fire service.
Wales’ local government secretary Mark Drakeford said the Act was unnecessary and would lead to more confrontational relationships between employers and workers.
Today (March 1), Welsh Assembly Members debated a Bill that attempts to dismantle some of the Act’s provisions, including the 40 per cent ‘yes’ threshold on ballots in important public services and changes to facility time.
Unite ‘will not be muzzled’
Unite assistant general secretary for legal services Howard Beckett agreed with McCluskey that the Act would not deter Unite from protecting its members, saying the union “will not be muzzled”.
“Our members should be entitled to basic democratic rights,” he said. “No one should forget how undemocratic this legislation is.”
“Members who go on strike do so as a last resort and this legislation is designed to prevent this,” he explained. “If the government is truly concerned about democracy in the workplace then bring the consultation on e- ballots to a swift conclusion and facilitate secure workplace ballots.”
“As our members feel the insecurity created by a hard Brexit this legislation, attempting to deny their workplace rights could not be worse-timed,” Beckett added.
McCluskey argued that the Conservative party is “fundamentally wrong in how it treats union members”.
“There are six million of us, all with families and friends, so our reach is far further,” he said. “We are not the `enemy within’. We are the people who care for our sick, our children and our communities, who keep our shops shelves stacked, keep our country defended and the lights on.
“The anti-worker legislation being brought in today is a disgraceful way to treat decent people. Today, sadly, this county, thanks to the Tories, takes a massive step backwards into becoming a more unequal nation.”
A motion to even further restrict the right to strike for workers in defined ‘critical national services’ was roundly defeated in the Commons last month (January 24).
A Ten Minute Rule motion was tabled by Conservative MP for Croydon South Chris Philp and called for critical national services to include railways, operators providing buses, trams and underground railways, the National Health Service and fire and ambulance services.
He argued that if staff in such services are taking strike action, any disruption to the public would have to be ‘reasonable and proportionate’ and it would be up to the High Court to decide on this.
But MPs rejected Philp’s arguments, voting down his motion 206 to 127.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner said that the wide margin by which MPs voted down the motion showed that “MPs have had enough of this government’s sustained attack on workers and the trade unions that represent them.”