Cuts Scene Investigation: Your Right to Free Assembly

Dissecting the Trade Union Bill 2015 – 16

Trade Unions: what have they done for us? Over the last century, quite a lot. Without which, everybody would be working weekends. Discrimination in the workplace would be endemic. Paid holidays would be non-existent. People with disabilities would be deprived of suitable adjustments. Health and Safety, that would be non-existent.

Today, 7 million people are members of a trade union. Half that of 1979 figures. A lot of that due to job losses in previously organised industries. Also the lack of major employers and public sector spending cuts.

With the most vindictive and right-wing Conservative government in living memory (perhaps the most right-wing government in Europe since Franco’s regime), we need trade unions more than ever. The right to organise is more important, but the lack of industries where collective bargaining could flourish stymies this. Instead of one company employing 10,000 people on one site, a thousand companies employing ten people is more commonplace.

With the internet, cyberspace could be Britain’s virtual picket line. The secondary pickets of old, are now replaced by ‘likes’ and retweets. Websites and online petitions are almost today’s show of hands.

The Trade Union Bill 2015 – 16, which has passed its Second Reading on Monday 14 September, is set to make Britain’s trade union laws stricter than at present. Even without Sajid Javid’s Bill, the UK has the strictest trade union laws in Europe.

If passed, being denied the right to strike in some cases will only be the tip of the iceberg. It is claimed that funding changes stipulated in the bill would destroy the Labour Party and the Labour Movement as a whole.

In other words, with a side-serving of Brexit and the loss of human rights, Serfdom v.2.

Turnout

The Trade Union Bill 2015 – 16 proposes that at least 40% of public sector employees eligible to vote in ballot answered “yes” to the question. Furthermore, amended from the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1992, a turnout of 50% minimum in all strike ballots.

Under Subsection 2D of the bill, the Trade Union Bill 2015 specifies ‘public sector’ within the following categories:

  1. Health Services: NHS provision, Local Authority social care;
  2. The education of persons under 17 years of age;
  3. Fire services: includes retained firefighters;
  4. Transport services: not only Network Rail staff or the people at your nearest TfGM Travelshop but also privatised bus operations (First Greater Manchester could be subject to this clause as well as First/Keolis Transpennine Express);
  5. Decommissioning nuclear installations and management of radioactive waste and spent fuel;
  6. Border security: for example, the customs section at Manchester Airport.

A minimum turnout of 50% makes for stricter rules than those at local and general elections. If the next local elections had similar turnout rules, the people of Tameside wouldn’t have a council at all! If applied in the 2010 General Election, the Manchester Central constituency would be without an M.P. (the turnout that year was 46.7%).

Ballots

The Bill proposes that ballots are opened as soon as s/he receives their ballot papers. What if s/he has a lousy postal service in their area? Person A could detail their ballot paper three days before Person B. The lack of advance information at the same for all members (rescinding part of the 1992 Act) could put Person B at a disadvantage, undermine turnout.

This could be remedied by the introduction of online options. If given the choice, s/he could enter their details through their trade union’s website. His or her ballot could be conducted through a portal created by the Electoral Reform Society, which could be similar to making an online purchase.

Further to Section 229 of the 1992 Act, will be changes to ballot paper information. Future ballot papers will need to detail the types of industrial action (i.e., two-day strikes, work-to-rule, overtime bans) if mentioned anywhere on the question. The most ludicrous part of which is Subsection 2D which states:

“The voting paper must indicate the period or periods within which the industrial action or, as the case may be, each type of industrial action is expected to take place.”

This reduces flexibility. What if an agreement is made three days before the proposed strike finishes and if so, will the trade union foot the bill for contingencies? What if there’s no agreement at the end of a given period? Could there be another ballot? Here’s a bureaucratic nightmare in the making, likely to make unofficial ballots more attractive.

Industrial Action

Still, the bureaucracy continues. Prior to any industrial action, the Certification Officer has to state at the end of each dispute:

  • Why the dispute went ahead: for example, no pay rise for five years, harassment, unrealistic demands, or worsening of conditions;
  • Kind of industrial action which took place: for example, a two-day strike over the Bank Holiday weekend;
  • When it was taken: details of when the dispute(s) took place.

If passed, the above will apply to any disputes and ballots falling on dates after the Bill was granted Royal Assent.

Picketing

Section 220A, after Section 220 in the 1992 Act, adds a considerable number of demands for future industrial action. As follows:

  1. Future strikes without a Picket Supervisor wearing an armband, or a Picket Supervisor refusing to wear an armband would invalidate the legitimacy of any strike action;
  2. Appointed Picket Supervisors would have to be familiar with a Code of Practice, detailed in Section 203 of the 1992 Act;
  3. The trade union concerned with the strike would need to tell the police who the Picket Supervisor is (inclusive of contact details) and as to where the strike is taking place; He or she would need to contactable by the police and trade union and able to attend at short notice;
  4. The Picket Supervisor would need to be present at all times and wear a name badge as well as his or her armband;
  5. From the trade union, s/he would need to be given an authorisation letter. On receipt, s/he must show the letter to any Police Constable or anybody else who would like to see it.

Within the five points detailed here, the most pernicious ones concern police notification and the use of armbands. With the former, it sets out the message that organising and standing up to bad working practices is seen as something to be ashamed of. The use of armbands (though easy for fellow picketers to identify the Picket Supervisor) is a retrograde one.

Both of the notions are open to abuse and corruption. How do we know if the Picket Supervisors’ records are going to be used against him or her in a court of law? (Data Protection issues). If anyone other than a police constable sees the letter s/he shows, how do we know if a hate campaign against him or her will take place? Would his or her privacy be infringed by unscrupulous reporters? Armbands should be for children learning to swim.

Furthermore, the union or his/her fellow colleagues wouldn’t be able to fight back on social media. Any future tweets or status updates would have to be scheduled in advance, giving trolls the upper hand. The trolls could name and shame the strikers. They could be subject to public abuse polarising Hardworking People® who favour or despise the strikers. Ultimately this could come at a risk to the personal reputations involved, future blacklisting, more DWP sanctions and an early grave.

We not only see the right to strike being undermined. This could set an alarming precedent for any form of public assembly and increased surveillance on all citizens. How long will it be before travelling football fans have to do the same with one person nominated to run the supporters’ coach (and handing in their details to the local police station)?

Funding and facility time

If you’re already a trade union member, you will be aware of political funds and facility time. In future, the way contributions to the trade union’s political fund (which helps to fight your corner as well as your fellow members’ interests) will be changed. Your trade union’s annual return will have to include details of political spending, on objects greater than £2,000.

Facility Time refers to the use of public sector employers’ premises for dialogue with fellow trade union members. Section 172A will compel them to state in writing (where required) by a Minister of the Crown:

  • How many employees are Trade Union Officials or Relevant Union Officials;
  • How much is spent on facility time, including details of specific categories;
  • Employers’ payments to employees on facility time;
  • The amount of time spent over a year in facility time;
  • Details of facilities used.

As seen above (you’ve guessed it), more bureaucracy. Shifted on to the increasingly stretched public sector. Some bosses could duck out of this by refusing to recognise trade unions which as well as driving down pay and conditions, would have a negative affect on the union’s funding.

As well as shifting more of the burden to unionised employers, the employee could see more of the burden with powers to increase levies taken by the Certification Officer. Higher subs could lead to lower membership rates and less money to fund the Labour Movement. For example, no money for the Labour Party, where the bulk of its funding is met by trade union members.

Certification Officers

It just gets worse. The Trade Union Bill 2015 proposes the creation of a new role. A state-supported union basher. Enter the Trade Union Certification Officer, which will be funded by… the contributions of trade union members.

Each trade union involved in a dispute would have to send details of any industrial action to the Certification Officer. He or she would have to see if, for example, Unison managed to do everything right before considering industrial action. In short, a Claimant Commitment for each constituent of the Labour Movement with our Certification Officer being the Work Coach.

In the same way unemployed people could be forced to attend the Jobcentre, the same sort of chivvying will afflict Messrs Prentice and McClusky. The equivalent to his or her Jobseekers’ Direction would be union chiefs being forced to hand over membership lists. Or face interrogation and see any documents of theirs destroyed.

His or her actions could see trade union banners singed. The Durham Miners’ Gala could be made illegal! Any publicity and interactions with social media could be censored.

If the role of the Certification Officer was condensed to one word, ‘surveillance’ would fit the bill. He or she would have advance intelligence of their activities and help to criminalise the Labour Movement.

Furthermore, advanced information would give bosses carte blanche to bus in scab labour. Illegal under the 1992 Act and since the abolition of 1971’s Industrial Relations Act, this could be reversed. With the rise of zero hour contracts, could we see a ‘Scab Pool’ of workers?

Probably at lower pay rates with staff recruited from local Jobcentres (and forced to cross picket lines upon pain of DWP sanctions for refusing to apply). The strikers wont be the only ones to lose out. Anyone forced to apply for the positions similarly so, under duress from IDS’s department.

Criminalising the right to strike

This is where the Trade Union Bill 2015 could take us. There could be more expensive days in court which could bankrupt the Labour Movement and leave members at the mercy of bad employers.

With extra bureaucracy between the courts and police, there will be less resources for fighting crime. Police forces, thanks to departmental cuts, have already had to cut down on investigative work. Then there’s the staff cuts and the closure of some 72 courts throughout the UK (such as Oldham Magistrates Court, ridiculous given the size and complexity of its boundaries).

The right to withdraw one’s services is a basic human right that should be available to all. Nobody ever considers going on strike as the be all and end all. Always as a last resort as strikes are costly on a personal and commercial level. (With the former, Supplementary Benefit payments were no longer made available to striking families after the 1988 Social Security Act).

East of the M60 Comment: More Than A Bad Bill, An Evil One

Ask yourself: should we be partying like its 2015, or could we be partying like it’s 1939? If this Bill is anything to go by, the latter seems likely. We are reminded of another fellow with a distinctive ‘tache, or some geezer with an oversized quiff in the Far East. It goes further than the 1984 Trade Union Act, which some commentators would like to see the back of.

In a nutshell:

  • It stigmatises trade unionists and rewards strike breakers;
  • It sets out to make trade unionism a taboo instead of an essential part of civilised society;
  • The Certification Officer could be given a mandate to destroy the Labour Movement;
  • The use of armbands and reporting their activities could create greater friction between non-trade unionists and trade unionists;
  • Increased surveillance could lead to greater corruption and unnecessary court proceedings.

The Bill doesn’t offer a strategic framework for the 21st century role of the trade union movement. It is a trojan horse towards the erosion of basic human rights throughout Britain. The driving down of pay and conditions thanks to a Tory 2020 Vision of a Britain free of trade unions and Saturdays off work. A Britain destroyed by TTIP, NHS privatisation and hydraulic fracturing where the Pacer units have been given 25 more years service.

The Trade Union Bill 2015, coupled with a British Bill of Rights (more watered down and divisive than the 1998 equivalent) and uncertainty in Europe will, in just 32 pages, destroy what was decent about the UK. Britain could be in the same league as the totalitarian states which its mainstream media have been quick to criticise.

What is being proposed is bad enough, but the scope for more pernicious activities is far greater by a factor of ten. Not least the distress it would have on affected persons, the bureaucracy. Also the censorship and the scope for mission creep into other areas where free assembly takes place – even in non-political settings.

We hope the Bill doesn’t become reality. If Mr. Javid’s Bill is granted Royal Assent, expect more riots and unofficial strikes. More trade unionists attacked on the picket line; the burning of union banners being akin to the burning of books.

Ultimately, everybody would be poorer. This isn’t only Death By A Thousand Paper Cuts to the Labour Movement. It’s everything our forefathers fought for which enable us to jet off abroad, add a conservatory, buy a house, have clean water, work in a safe environment, and security in times of need.

It is our turn to carry on from where they left off. We cannot afford to let them trash what’s rightfully ours. This is not a restaurant which is being trashed, it is a country. It is your public services, your rights in the workplace. The right to be ‘you’ and ‘we’, rather than ‘me’ and ‘I’.

S.V., 17 September 2015.

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