From Boxing to Dancing?

Time to take your partners

There is so much to say about the Trade Union Bill (TUB), about its ideology and its potential impact that it’s difficult to know where to start. Perhaps, the first point to make is that to fully appreciate its depth of vindictiveness, extent to which it contravenes a range of international conventions on the right to strike and freedoms of association, expression and assembly, you do need to look behind the headline measures.

There’s making a violation of the picketing code a criminal offence or extending picketing rules to cover social media or associated protests. Or, giving the Certification Officer power to investigate unions of its own volition (and not in response to a member’s complaint) or to demand information from a union to an extent that constitutes an unprecedented level of state interference. To add insult to injury, unions will have to pay a levy to meet the cost of the enforcement of these new powers.

Added to that, there’s the 14 days’ notice requirement to give employers more time to organise an alternative workforce. This is likely to mean migrant and unemployed workers will be used as strikebreakers (with the unemployed under threat of benefit sanction). This will only will create massive resentment and conflict all round – hence the reason for the new restrictions on picketing and peaceful protest!

All of this should not really have come as any surprise. Tory ministers made clear their intentions after the INEOS dispute when they established the Carr Review, hoping it would provide the justification for their plans. We know the attacks are motivated by an ideological opposition to collectivism and a ruthlessness determination to crush political opposition in order to prevent organised resistance to the ability of the elite to wield its economic and political power unchallenged.

TUB also reveals Tory Ministers’ total ignorance of what happens in the workplace, not just the impact on productivity and economic performance but on wider social policy objectives and our civic and democratic wellbeing. TUB starts from the false premise unions are bad and need to be curtailed – that we are a barrier to employers’ prerogative to do what they want in the workplace. This, of course, is not the norm in successful northern European economies such as Germany and Sweden, and is also not what we are trying to create here in Scotland.

It was no accident that when the Westminster government set up the Carr Review the STUC encouraged the Scottish Government to take a fundamentally different approach. We did this through the Working Together Review. The Review, initiated by the Government at our instigation, was conducted by a group drawn from unions, employers and academia and examined in detail the role unions play in the workplace and in wider economy and society.

The Review Group identified measures to optimise relationships that link unions, employers and government and embed progressive workplace practices to boost innovation and productivity, deliver successful, sustainable organisations, high-quality jobs and a more equitable society. It also provided independent evidence of the positive role unions play and the importance of collective bargaining as a demonstrable and effective form of workplace democracy, recognising the economic and social challenges and opportunities facing Scotland are more likely to be addressed successfully in an environment where unions play their full part.

It placed what happens in the workplace at the heart of public policy discourse in Scotland, something the STUC has been emphasising in its discussions with successive governments since devolution.

In creating the Fair Work Convention earlier this year, the central recommendation of the Review, and in the wide range of other actions it intends to take in response to the Review, the Scottish Government demonstrated it appreciates industrial relations and workplace policy are as important in their influence on economic activity, performance, growth, and inequality, as macro-economic factors such as interest rates, exchange rates and levels of corporate taxation.

Through the Convention, unions, employers and government in Scotland have the opportunity to work together to establish a distinctive approach to industrial relations and fair employment practices, akin to the approach in the most successful European economies, and which stands in stark contrast to the philosophy underpinning TUB.

It is early days for the Convention as it embarks on the initial task it has been set, to establish a Fair Work Framework. While it has yet to reach any conclusions, its working definition, which draws on research on improving job quality, identifies fair work as work that provides opportunity, fulfilment, security, respect and effective voice. Of course, these themes are open to wide interpretation, particularly over the emphasis given to how they are applied in an individual and collective context.

The tendency for some Ministers to conflate payment of the Living Wage with fair work or some Government officials and agencies to refer to the Working Together Review without mentioning the role of unions (when it was explicitly about the role of unions), indicates that there still remains a job to be done to establish the centrality of unions and collective bargaining in achieving ‘fair work’.

However, we can take encouragement from what the First Minister said in her address to the STUC Congress this year: ‘This SNP Government will always champion and stand up for the positive role unions can play. We value highly the role of collective bargaining in ensuring decent pay and working conditions – something that is especially important in low wage sectors’. And we can also take encouragement from the evidence base published by the Working Together Review and elsewhere on the importance of unions.

While we have significant evidence to draw on, the same cannot be said for TUB. It is a solution to problems that don’t exist as we don’t have a strike problem. Last year, there were only 151 strikes, less than 2% of workers participated in a strike. Days lost due to strikes were less than 3% of the 28.2m lost due to work related accidents and ill-health.

If the Tories really cared about dealing with workplace issues, they wouldn’t be diluting health and safety laws and attacking the role of workplace union reps in the public sector (who play a vital role in ensuring that workers are not killed or injured at work). Even if we did have a ‘strike problem’, that would be no reason to trample over workers’ civil and human rights.

The evidence base for the proposed restrictions on picketing is equally anaemic. The so-called ‘evidence’ the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published is drawn from Carr. A footnote in it is very revealing: ‘Due to issues with the methodology of the Carr Review, all events mentioned remain alleged and it was limited in what it concluded’. It goes on to say that the Carr Review ‘arrived at no judgment on either the extent or extremity of use of extreme tactics in industrial disputes nor the effectiveness of the existing legal framework’.

We all know what happened. Bruce Carr, the QC asked to conduct the review, and no particular friend of unions, abandoned it last August because unions and employers refused to provide evidence and Tory ministers prejudiced the outcome by announcing their intention to introduce ballot thresholds and the other restrictions on industrial action which are now in the Bill.

BIS’s so called ‘evidence’ comes from the Association of Police Officers and not from employers or workers alleging intimidation. It included such damming evidence as the use of air horns in public in the proximity of small children; walking slowly in front of vehicles; using the internet to post intimidatory material (undefined) and blocking the access for shoppers at the doors to retail stores. It mentions that during the INEOS dispute secondary targeting occurred at a number of premises and suppliers who had links to Grangemouth. Unite put an inflatable Rat outside Jim Ratcliffe’s house!

Of course, it depends very much what you define as intimidation. Is it intimidation if an employer, as was the case with INEOS, threatens to close a plant and take away workers’ livelihoods? Is it intimidation for an employer to threaten to decimate a local community or threaten the stability of a national economy, if a union and its members do not agree to accept cuts in pay, terms and conditions and pensions?

It is also a form of intimidation for Westminster minsters to threaten public sector employers, including the Scottish government and Scottish Council’s and Health Boards, with sanctions, possibly criminal sanctions, if they continue to offer check off facilities to union members or an amount of facility time to union reps that goes beyond what they decree.

It is totally unacceptable that these ministers should have the power to interfere directly in the industrial relations arrangements that public sector employers choose to have with the unions, particularly in areas where public services are devolved.

So we will have a situation where Minsters sitting in Westminster will be able to tell the Scottish government, Glasgow City Council or the NHS in Scotland (which has effective partnership arrangements with the unions including having workers representatives on heath boards), how much they can invest in ensuring good and effective industrial relations with the recognised unions.

This is simply unacceptable and untenable. The Scottish Government and all Scottish public bodies should not only join us in opposing TUB and the ridiculous interference in our industrial relations arrangements, but also refuse to implement any instructions issued from Westminster on facility time or check-off.

Westminster’s use of its reserved powers over union and employment rights will significantly impeded our efforts to establish a positive industrial relations environment and positive role for unions in Scotland. This makes the case for these powers to be devolved at the earliest possible opportunity even more compelling.

In the meantime, all who value constructive workplace industrial relations should unite in condemning TUB, play their part in implementing the recommendations of the Working Together Review and in ensuring that the significant opportunities offered by the Fair Work Convention are realised.

Grahame Smith is general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC)