The Conservative assault on industrial relations

While offering a higher new minimum wage, the Tories are trying to destroy the means by which workers across the spectrum bargain for decent wages. This is no route to a high wage economy.

George Wilson
27 July 2015

Flickr/Roger Blackwell. Some rights reserved.

After the first reading of the Trade Union Bill last Wednesday, more is now known about its form and potential impact. The reforms that it proposes to industrial relations and organised labour are significant – not since Margaret Thatcher have trade unions faced such drastic changes.

The Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, plans to introduce turnout and support thresholds for strikes; criminalise unlawful or intimidatory picketing; allow employers to hire strike-breaking agency staff; and require unions to ask members whether they wish to pay the political levy to the Labour party. Other changes include granting government certification officers powers to fine unions for breaching reporting rules.

At a time when strikes cause considerably less disruption than in the recent past (704,000 days were lost to strike action in the 12 months to April 2015, versus 13m days on average in the 70s), why are reforms needed? Javid’s reforms are part motivated by ideology and part by a post-election Conservative strategy to weaken the Labour party whilst at its most vulnerable.

The number of union members that will proactively support paying the political levy rather than pay through inertia will be tiny. Commentators have suggested that the Labour party could be bankrupted by major cuts to its £25m per year fighting fund (the Conservatives resisted cross-party attempts lead by Nick Clegg during the last parliament to lower the individual donation cap).

The idea that the public are sick of strikes is being used as an excuse to enact wide-ranging reforms to the already shaky foundations of industrial relations in Britain. Proposals to outlaw strikes in key public services unless 50% of those balloted have voted and 40% have voted in favour, set a very high threshold for industrial action.

Javid’s argument that people and businesses need a counterbalance to protect them from the ability of unions to strike is nonsense.

Recent strikes on the London Underground would have gone ahead under these rules, although strikes in less well organised sectors with weaker unions would not. Figures released by the TUC show that a number of strikes held this year in local government and education would not have passed the ‘double threshold’ test.

This assault upon industrial democracy is particularly Janus-faced given Conservative polling at the general election. Overall turnout is estimated at 66.1% of the electorate, of which only 36.9% voted for the Conservatives. This is thrown into even sharper relief when results in individual constituencies are considered; Assistant Whip Jackie Doyle-Price was elected with a vote share of 33.7%.

Attempting to appeal to logic is perhaps to miss the deeper truth of the debate. Unlike in most western European states, the Conservatives see no role for trade unions in the administration of democracy. If ever there had been an attempt at partnership under the previous government, in terms of tackling problems together, it will not be extended under this government.

As backwards looking as unions can be, suggestions have been made for voting procedures to be made more transparent. Adopting the electronic system the Conservatives will use for selecting their London mayoral candidate was rejected.

The move towards criminalising trade union activity is altogether more worrying. Images of white collar workers on picket lines being hauled off by the police have worrying connotations with 1930s Germany. Last week, Mick Whelan, head of the train drivers’ union Aslef, drew comparisons with fascism. The Trade Union Bill may very well herald a slippery slide backwards.

From the industrial revolution onwards, trade union rights have progressed from state repression, to toleration, to acceptance. The last period of criminalisation in British industrial relations was in the 1800s. Limited state intervention under the legal and economic doctrine of collective laissez faire has been a characteristic since.

Allowing employers to hire strike-breaking agency staff would neuter trade unions. The ability of workers to withdraw their labour provides the only real incentive for employers to engage in negotiations with unions (in light of the absence of state compulsion for agreements to be reached). Rules around timing are also important, unions will have to give employers 14 days notice of any potential strike action; enough time for the employment of blacklegs.

It is not difficult to envisage a scenario were employees are made to jump through the hoops of the new bill only for substitute labour to be arranged in the meantime.

Placed into the context of George Osborne’s post-budget vision for the economy, restricting the actions of unions is naive. The success of a low welfare, high wage economy is dependent upon structures other than the state to provide support. Reducing in-work benefits and shifting responsibility to society to pick up the tab requires the existence of strong civic institutions. Weakening trade unions will hinder the chances of a balanced economic recovery.

Also worth consideration is how the recent success of ‘blue collar’ Conservatism, which appeals to aspirational, working class voters, can be sustained when the very institutions of which many blue collar workers are members are being attacked?

The Conservative idea of what unions do, is to their detriment, long out of date. Modern unions provide the education and training Osborne has highlighted as being desperately needed to improve productivity. In order for all to reap the benefits of a higher national minimum wage i.e. the new national living wage, strong trade unions are required to ensure ‘spillover effects’ are felt further up the wage distribution. Those states with statutory minimum wages and high levels of trade union density have higher average wages and less inequality.

It is important though that the Trade Union Bill is taken as a spur for internal reform. Reform of voting procedures is welcome and should be complemented by a renewed focus on representing those who are traditionally overlooked by unions e.g. precarious workers, women and immigrants. With stronger, more representative, mandates unions will be able to counter the Conservative narrative more effectively, with their actions having greater legitimacy.

The immediate concern of the unions must be to build a broad coalition of support, including the traditional factions of the left but also the progressive parties that are now a feature of politics in Westminster. All the help that can be mustered is needed, the future of industrial relations is at stake.

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