The Tories want to smash the unions and this is how they plan to do it

Mick Whelan


As a trade union representing ordinary, decent, hard-working men and women doing a safety-critical job to ensure that passengers on Britain’s railways get the first class public transport they deserve, we have serious fears about what this government is proposing.

If the Trade Union Bill is passed by the House of Lords, we will face even more restrictions before our members can take action which is legally protected. A ballot will require not just a majority of those who vote, but a majority of those who are entitled to vote: a threshold which undermines the democratic will – a tradition understood for centuries – of those choosing to take part in the ballot. Bizarrely, it treats a failure to participate as a ‘no’ vote.

Extra restrictions are imposed on ‘important public services’ – a wider definition than ‘essential public services’ in existing law. And this applies not just to those directly providing the service, but also to those involved in ancillary activities, such as cleaners in hospitals. In these ‘important public services’ not only must there be a majority voting ‘yes,’ and a 50% turnout, but 40% of those entitled to vote must now vote in favour.

You get the picture. But there’s more. The ballot paper must now include ‘a reasonably detailed indication of the matters at issue in the dispute,’ the ‘types of industrial action’ being contemplated and when that action is likely to take place. If the union manages to satisfy all this, and members vote in favour of action, we will now be required to give two weeks’ notice (rather than one week at present) before action can start and have to re-ballot if the action continues for more than four months.

It’s all designed to make it difficult, if not impossible, for a trade union to comply with the law, to deter our members from voting in favour of action and to give employers the maximum possible opportunity to mount a legal challenge. The Tories want to smash the trade unions and this is the way they think they can do it. Because this government is coming after the one group of people – the trade unions – able to stand up for the poor and the weak, the oppressed and the dispossessed, as well as ordinary working people. They talk about essential services. All services are essential!

The Tories are trying to break us because they know we are the only thing that stands between them, and the class they represent, and a return to Victorian values – by which I mean tax cuts for the bankers and the brokers who brought Britain to the brink, for a very few at the top of the pile, and a life on zero hours contracts and the minimum wage for the rest of us.

There is, you notice, no new law to deal with rogue employers who break agreements.

The Tories’ anti-Trade Union Bill won’t work, anyway. Because history teaches us that if you take away people’s right to strike – the right to do it lawfully, through a recognized trade union – then the result is a spate of wildcat strikes. And you can’t stop people wildcatting. There is a long history on the railway, and particularly on the Tube in London, of people taking unofficial action. And then it’s nothing to do with us. So who do the employers go to, to try and resolve the situation? Who do they talk to? Who will you get to sit around the table and negotiate?

It’s a badly thought out, badly drafted, Bill designed to hurt the trade unions and damage the Labour Party. Unions will only be able to take political fund contributions from members who opt in and every union will have just three months from when the new act becomes law to sign up members to the political fund. This is an impossible task, designed to prevent unions from spending money on campaigning as well as a nakedly political attack by the Tories on the Labour Party.

We believe it is the right of every worker to withdraw his or her labour. Because we are not slaves and this is not a slave state. No man or woman should be forced to work by the threats of a bad employer or a bad government.

Trade unions are voluntary, democratic organisations, essential in a free society. No other organisations face such state intrusion or restriction on their activities. This Bill is the work of a vindictive Conservative Party using the levers of power for its own political ends, to outlaw legitimate protest and opposition, stifle free speech and choke off the resources of political opponents.

It should be opposed not just by every union activist, every socialist, and every member of the Labour Party, but by every man and woman who cherishes freedom, democracy and the rule of law.

Mick Whelan is General Secretary of ASLEF. This article is part of a series to mark heartunions, the TUC week of action against the Trade Union Bill.

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