Days before the Trade Union Bill comes up for its second reading in the Commons on Monday (September 14), the government proposals have come under fire not only from trade unions, but from all sides, including the public, independent bodies , leading politicians and academics.
Former business secretary under the coalition government, Vince Cable, denounced the bill today (September 10), calling it “vindictive, counterproductive and ideologically driven”.
“It is very provocative, highly ideological and has no evidence base at all,” he said. “You have got to look at things on their merits. Are they justified, are they compliant with broader legal principals?”
Cable’s scathing criticism joins the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) – an association of human resource management professionals – in its own attack on the bill.
“Taxpayers’ interests are best served by an efficient, engaged and productive public sector workforce,” said CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese.
“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 CIPD highlighted that the number of days lost to strike action had fallen drastically over the past twenty years by 90 per cent – from seven million days a year in the 1980s to an average of 670,000 a year between 1990 and 2014 – precluding the need for such baggy legislation in the first place.
The organisation also noted that “CIPD research with employers and consultations with its own members show that employer relationships with trade unions are generally good.”
While strike ballot thresholds have received the most media attention, buried beneath the headline proposals are tighter controls in the public sector on the funding of trade union ‘facility time’, in which union officials such as health reps are paid to carry out their trade union duties.
But prominent academics from leading business schools have condemned this proposal, presenting research that links better performance with the presence of trade union reps in the workplace.
“Restricting facility time for union representatives in the public sector would be counterproductive and may damage levels of trust between employers and employees, reduce co-operation when introducing change to improve public services, increase labour turnover, increase the number of industrial tribunal cases, and result in lower levels of labour productivity, service quality and financial performance,” said Kim Hoque of Warwick Business School, one of three academics who spearheaded the research.
The research found that in NHS in particular, the labour turnover rate was 3 times greater and the industrial tribunal rate 14 times higher in workplaces without union representatives – demonstrating just how closely union reps work with management to encourage workplace productivity.
Based on the government-sponsored Workplace Employment Relations Survey data, the research found that 66 per cent of union representatives in the public sector state that they work closely with management when changes are being introduced – a figure that rises to 82 per cent among full-time worker representatives.
“The steps laid out by the government do not appear to take into account evidence, using data the government itself has sponsored, pointing to the positive effects that workplace trade union representatives have in the public sector,” noted Nick Bacon of Cass Business School.
“Both full and part-time workplace union representatives help improve performance in the public sector and managers widely recognise this to be the case,” he added.
While senior Tory politicians trumpet the hard-line proposals forming the Trade Union Bill, the Tory government’s own Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC), an independent body that was specifically charged in July to verify costs and savings to businesses from changes in law, derided the Bill as “not fit for purpose”.
The independent watchdog, which was set up by the government to cut £10bn of red tape, hit out against all three major parts of the Trade Union Bill — restrictions on picket lines, strike ballot thresholds and the hiring agency staff during strike action.
The RPC noted of the government’s impact assessments that ‘there is little evidence presented that there will be any significant benefits [from the proposals in the Bill]’.
The RPC itself is made up of representatives from the business community, economists, civil society representatives and legal professionals. The one trade union representative part of the RPC was barred from assessing the Bill in order to prevent a conflict of interest.
Unite director of legal services Howard Beckett agreed with the RPC’s criticism of the Trade Union Bill’s impact assessments.
“As the RPC has pointed out, there is no evidence that this legislation is needed,” he said. “It is driven by ideology and elements of it by sheer spite.
“This government seems determined to treat workers as an industrial commodity, removed of the most basic of employment rights – the right to deny labour. This legislation isn’t a throwback to the Tory government of 1979 it is a throwback to Victorian times.”
Waste of time
Despite a constant media barrage of anti-union attacks – ‘holding the country to ransom’ being a favourite media cliché of strike action – the public aren’t buying it either.
A YouGov poll carried out for the TUC released yesterday (September 9) found that more than three-quarters of the public – and 69 per cent of Tory voters — think that making it compulsory for unions to give two weeks’ notice if they intend to use a loudspeaker or carry a banner during a strike is a “bad use of police time”.
A similar number (72 per cent) think forcing unions to submit what they are planning to post on Facebook, Twitter and on blogs during a strike two weeks in advance to the police would be a “bad use of police time”.
Under current proposals, if unions violate restrictions on picketing they could be hit with financial penalties of up to £20,000.
Police forces also shared the public’s concern that policing picket lines would be a strain on time and resources.
“Police forces are stretched to the very limit,” said Police Federation vice-chairman Will Riches.
“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,” he added.
Tory prejudice exposed
From human rights groups to businesses and former ministers, staunch opposition to the Bill is quickly mounting. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey today (September 10) echoed the idea that it’s not only trade unions who unequivocally reject the entire purpose of the Trade Union Bill.
“Not one of the blue chip companies with which Unite works has said that the law needs to change because good employers value the role trade unions play in the workplace, with far more often than not disputes resolved through consultation and negotiation,” he said.
“It is hard to find a shred of support for this shabby bill. Former ministers have termed it ‘depressingly ideological and completely unnecessary’,” McCluskey added.
“It would seem that the only support for it is around the Conservative cabinet table, sadly exposing their prejudice and poor understanding about what unions actually do to support working people and improve working conditions.”
Be sure to contact your MP and tell them to do the right thing and vote against the Trade Union Bill.
You can do just that right here — it takes less than 30 seconds to do your part to protect working people’s rights.