Let’s talk about the proposals in Wednesday’s Queen’s speech for trade unions.
First there was the proposal to limit strike action. The government is demanding a 50% turnout threshold in a ballot and an additional 40% yes vote requirement in “core public services” (health, education, transport and fire services). This comes hand in hand with new time limitations on ballot mandates, making it easier for employers to tie up strikes in the court.
It’s simply disingenuous for the government to insist this is not a case of banning strike action by the back door. On one hand the Conservatives say it’s about democracy, but on the other they ignore the calls of general secretaries to modernise balloting union members. Len McCluskey commented, “Unite has said repeatedly that the way to increase turnouts in strike ballots is not to make it harder for people to exercise fundamental rights, but to modernise voting.” While Mark Serwotka said last week, “We have been asking this and previous governments for 10 years to make it easier for people to participate and vote. Electronic voting, voting by phone, voting by internet, supervised voting in the workplace. The government says ‘no, we’re not prepared to allow you to do any of those things.’”
Then there are the changes to the political fund. This has been framed by the media as an attack on the funding of the Labour Party. And it is. As Joy Johnson of Unite the Union notes: “This will certainly mean a cut in the political fund and a reduction in funds for the Labour Party. As it is political funds are already subject to approval in regular ballots by the unions. This seems like spite coming as it does from a party funded by multimillionaires and hedge funds who will be able to sign cheques free from any restrictions.”
But this move is as much an attempt to depoliticise the union movement as it is to de-fund the Labour Party, and this is the part that has been ignored in press coverage of the proposals. So to understand how the move will depoliticise unions we need to be clear about what a political fund does.
The political fund is the pot of money unions have to campaign on all political activities, not simply to fund the Labour Party – indeed a significant number of unions don’t even donate to the Labour Party. Trade union political activity include campaigns such as opposing NHS privatisation and the closure of SureStart centres, and the ability to campaign for better working conditions at a political level, such as implementation of the Living Wage. Of course, over the last five years – and no doubt the next five – that has meant campaigning against Conservative Party policy.
Every 10 years, by law, union members vote on whether to keep the political fund (thanks to the Trade Union Act of 1984 – Thatcher’s last attempt to defenestrate the unions). At the moment, the political fund is automatically taken from members’ monthly subs. The government is counting on the fact that union members won’t choose to opt in to the fund because they won’t know what it’s used for in practice.
There is no justifiable reason for an “opt-in” political fund, because members themselves decide how the money is spent at union conferences anyway. But an “opt-in” fund does mean Her Majesty’s Opposition will have fewer donations and unions will have less money with which to oppose the government. Are we really supposed to believe these two factors played no part in formulating the policy?
There is no justifiable reason for the new strike law, given the government defends Police Crime Commissioner elections despite the turnout being as low as 9% in some cases.
So what are the reasons for these policies? We need to start demanding proper explanations from the government. When trade unions are weakened, the rights of all working people become compromised. And we’ll all suffer for that.