Tonight, David Cameron attempts to drive through a bill which will make it ‘close to impossible’ for trade unions to take any lawful industrial action.
Senior Tory MP David Davis this weekend complained that parts of the Trade Union Bill (which gets its second reading this evening) resemble something General Franco would have come up with. Amnesty International and Liberty have issued a joint statement criticising the Trade Union Bill as a “major attack on civil liberties in the UK”.
It’s not the individual measures as much as the cumulative effect on trade unions in both the private and public sector (including the NHS) that is the problem. But the individual measures are remarkable in their authoritarianism.
Making striking workers wear distinguishing armbands on pain of a £20,000 fine. Making unions tell the police and employers in advance of what they plan to post on Twitter and Facebook. Making it more difficult for public sector workers to pay their union subscriptions. Setting a bar for minimum participation in ballots that most unions – particularly those organising the most exploited workers – will find hard to meet (and that few MPs would meet). For example last year the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) went on strike for the first time in its hundred year history – to significant support from the public. The RCM got an astounding 85% yes vote for strike action, on an equally impressive 49% turnout. This strike would have been illegal under the Trade Union Bill.
Taking away ordinary people’s rights to effectively organise at work and – if necessary – choose to withhold their labour as a last resort will do nothing to fix the real problems facing Britain. But it will make it easier for employers to exploit workers - and for public services to be cut and privatised in the teeth of opposition from the people who work for them.
We've heard a lot lately about '70s throwbacks', but it's the Tories who seem stuck in the past on this one. Times have changed. Far more people now disagree than agree with the statement that 'trade unions have too much power'. And eight out of 10 people think that 'trade unions are essential to protect workers' interests'. Our union laws are already amongst the most restrictive in the western world. Very few days are currently lost to strikes. In the NHS, where health unions have taken industrial action as a last resort, they work with employers to ensure that emergency cover is in place to protect public safety and to ensure that the vulnerable are cared for.
But Cameron’s crude manoeuvring risks worsening industrial relations and morale in our already struggling public services, and plunging us back into wildcat strife. Effectively making strikes illegal will not stop strikes, it will mean they take place outside the law.
You’d hope that maybe Cameron, now faced by the famously ‘listening’ Corbyn as Labour leader, might by now have learned that occasionally listening to one’s critics is both wise and – as Churchill said – courageous.
After all, a year ago Cameron's former number 10 advisor claimed, in relation to the disastrous NHS bill, that "No one apart from Lansley had a clue what he was really embarking on, certainly not the prime minister. He kept saying his grand plans had the backing of the medical establishment and we trusted him. In retrospect it was a mistake." Osborne's people briefed that “George kicks himself for not having spotted it and stopped it."
Perhaps they need to get better, not worse, at listening to trade unions, who were at the forefront of pointing out that the bill wouldn’t fix anything and would leave the English NHS in a huge, even more cash-strapped, disorganised mess.
Time and again, disasters have befallen the NHS that could have been avoided if politicians had listened to health unions. The privatisation of Hinchingbrooke Hospital in the teeth of such warnings duped a political class, who hailed it as the future, before it collapsed under staff cuts, bullying management, and shocking patient conditions.
From the Private Finance Initiative rip-off to Foundation Trusts and the whole expensive ‘market’ edifice, NHS unions have been there issuing warnings that have proved grimly prescient, as private providers fail, standards fall, bullying cultures maintain problems, poor leadership fails to respond to them, and cuts bite.
But, rather than learning to listen, Cameron is silencing opponents. In fact the attack on unions looks part of a wider dismantling of the British system of checks and balances (as we see with the Lobbying Act, the dismantling of Freedom of Information rights, and the elevation of the Notting Hill Spadocracy to the House of Lords), so that Cameron can force through his ideological project.
Whilst politicians have issued grand visions, skewed the process, and skimped on risk and impact assessments, it’s the unions who’ve been doggedly plugging away, looking at the detail of policy proposals and their impact on services like the NHS - and pointing out the reality behind the rhetoric. That’s their job, to look at the reality that their members - doctors, nurses, health workers, porters and receptionists – are going to have to implement. And as the unions have been ignored, the staff that make up the bedrock of our NHS have begun to leave in despair, their jobs getting harder and harder, services declining relative to pounds spent, with every expensive market-driven set of ‘reforms’ of the last 30 years, in the NHS and beyond.
Our NHS needs those checks and balances, those critical voices, now more than ever. As Emily Thornberry recently exposed in questions to Jeremy Hunt, our Health Secretary appears to have no idea how his ‘24/7’ NHS vision will be achieved, or how it’s different to what we already have. It’s just a soundbite.
Meanwhile the NHS faces integration with departments facing up to 40% further cuts, alongside ongoing privatisation across the public sector (a drastic escalation of which Cameron announced on Friday). It is unacceptable for the government to weaken the union voice as a way of reducing obstacles to such changes.
Currently, unions play a positive role in the NHS, raising safety standards and skills, and improving the quality of services. But Cameron plans to restrict ‘facility time’ so that union reps will no longer be able to effectively support standards in our public services.
One of the most dangerous ideas is to allow the use of agency workers to break strikes. Agency workers will often be recruited at short notice, and/or be less experienced. Such workers do not always receive adequate safety training needed to do work normally covered by permanent staff. This could place public safety at risk and is particularly inappropriate in a health care setting.
Hunt’s clumsy sloganeering, combined with this authoritarian bill, can only hasten the exodus of irreplaceable, highly-skilled but utterly demoralised health workers whom taxpayers have invested billions in training. We are already nearing the tipping point for the NHS. And if it dies, the public will never forgive the Conservative party.
Of course, by that time Cameron will presumably be on a lucrative speaking-tour career, perhaps specialising on how he ended the British tradition of tolerance and its old-fashioned idea that "as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone". And who knows, perhaps Sajid Javid will have taken over (or returned to) the Wall Street bank that discussed whether it would ‘allow’ democratically elected opposition parties to form governments, or not.
If Tory MPs don’t stop him, it won’t be Corbyn but Cameron who will be seen conducting deeply divisive, anti-democratic and sectional politics. It will be Cameron who appears to care more about appeasing a narrow ideological clique drastically out of touch with majority public opinion. Who threatens today to smash the prevailing consensus and take us back to 70s-style unregulated, unlawful, wildcat industrial disruption. Who appears to want to effectively kill off those forces who have been leading the fightback against our national services being handed over to foreign interests.
One might almost say, who threatens our security.
Readers can email their MP asking them to oppose the Trade Union Bill, here.
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