The Government’s plans for new legal hurdles making it harder for union members to take strike action are described as a “major attack” on civil liberties in the UK, in a joint statement by Liberty, Amnesty UK and the British Institute of Human Rights. The Trade Union Bill has already come in for heavy criticism.
The statement concludes: “Taken together the unprecedented measures in the Bill would hamper people’s basic rights to protest and shift even more power from the employee to the employer. It is hard to see the aim of this bill as anything but seeking to undermine the rights of all working people. We owe so many of our employment protections to Trade Unions and we join them in opposing this bill.”
Every worker wanting to join a strike picket could be forced to identify themselves to police, carry a letter of authorisation and wear an armband, under proposed reforms to trade union laws. The original plans set out in the Trade Union Bill would have required only a picketing supervisor to hand over his name and contact details to police, to wear an armband, and to carry a letter of authorisation issued by the union. But the Government’s consultation raises the prospect of going even further and requiring all those present at a picket having to do the same. Liberty has described it as “authoritarian” and would discourage workers from joining pickets in fear of being blacklisted by employers and police.
Liberty said that demanding that all picketers hand over contact details to police would signal a “hark back to historical problems” between trade unions and the authorities. This was a reference to widespread allegations that the police and security services previously passed on names and contact details of trade union members to a database that firms consulted before offering people jobs. “With a history of blacklisting it’s entirely understandable why trade union members don’t want to identify themselves to the police and give the police their phone numbers,” Sara Ogilvie, policy officer at Liberty, said, warning that strike action would soon cease to exist in the UK if the proposals went ahead. The proposed Bill would also constitute a “clear breach” of Britain’s obligations under international labour standards, experts at Liberty has claimed.
Proposals such as the requirement that unions count abstentions in ballots as ‘no’ votes that would also be deemed illegal under International Labour Organisation standards, of which British is a member, Liberty claims. The Government wants to curtail strike action by requiring a turnout of at least 50 per cent of union members for industrial action to be legal. There would also be an additional requirement in “important” public services that strikes be supported by at least 40 per cent of all those eligible to vote. This would mean that any worker who abstains or forgets to return their ballot paper would be deemed to be opposing the move – contravening ILO standards. “We definitely think the Government is playing fast and loose with its international obligations,” said Ms Ogilvie. She went on to explain, “Strikes are actually a tiny, tiny part of what trade unions do, but they are vital for acting as a stick to give trade unions and employees the opportunity to go to employers and say ‘look: this is something we need to talk about, this is something we need to get sorted out’ and let the employer know that the threat of a strike is always there. If you take that threat away, people who are not getting paid the minimum wage, people who are not getting their tips because firms are taking them directly out of the till; they’re going to have no way of enforcing their rights, which is completely at odds with what the Conservatives are saying about being the party of the workers.”