Trade Union Bill is now law

The Trade Union Bill received Royal Assent on Wednesday 4 May – the ninetieth anniversary of the 1926 General Strike – and much of it is likely to be in force by the end of the year. The Act is a shadow of the Bill first proposed, but dangerous details hide in those shadows. Shining a light on the dangers ahead and exposing the intentions behind the Act are vital. If not our kids will suffer as the power of unions to organise, to represent, and to defend living standards are choked off.

Some of the more bizarre and extreme proposals have been removed. But many of the ‘flagship’ elements of the Tory Bill are now law. On ballots, the imposition of three thresholds imposes near impossible targets for many of those leading the resistance against privatisation and cuts. Promises to review and roll-out e-ballots were dumped, kicked into the long grass of an independent review.

And proposals to bus in agency workers – often vulnerable people coerced into taking jobs under new Universal Credit rules – still lurk in the background.

On political funds, though delayed for 12 months, the opt-in system is now law and threatens to undermine the political voice of unions. The bureaucratic nonsense of unions having to declare all political expenditure over £2,000 pa stands in complete contrast to the privacy and anonymity given to offshore funds and offshore Tory funders, and is laughable coming from a party itself under investigation for electoral fraud!

The idea of giving concessions where agreement can be reached permeates much of the Act. But if the Government was really supportive of industrial relations being conducted by agreement, it would have introduced statutory procedures to encourage collective bargaining. Instead, it has created a statutory safety net for employers to fall back on should relations at work deteriorate still further.

The backdrop to this unnecessary Act is the newly empowered state surveillance officer. The Certification Officer (CO) has powers to initiate complains, undertake inspections, record names, determine outcomes and impose fines of between £200 and £20,000 on any national, regional or local branch.

It’s true the government inserted a clause saying the CO would not be ‘subject to directions of any kind from any Minister as to the manner in which he is to exercise his functions’. But it’s not the manner that is so objectionable. It is the nature of the work that raises concerns and it is the nature of the work that is set by Ministers.

Parliamentary activity has delivered what it can in the face of a government determined to silence political opposition, cull collective action, criminalise picket line solidarity and strangle unions with bureaucratic red tape controlled by a state surveillance officer.

If this Act, like the 1971 one before it is to be defeated, the immediate battle will be extra-parliamentary, led by workers responding to attacks on their standards of living and working conditions. Those battles are already being fought and will continue to grow as current economic policies fail to deliver anything other than growing inequality and lack of opportunity.

In the longer term, Jeremy Corbyn and his team need to be given the space and time to develop alternative economic and industrial policies that will expose the political nature of Tory attacks and show how another political agenda is possible (see Labour’s Workplace 2020 initiative To that end, the Institute of Employment Rights (IER) is working on a manifesto for labour law which places unions back at the heart of economic, industrial and social regeneration.

  • Restrictions imposed by the Trade Union Act include:
    Need to appoint an authorized picket supervisor, known to the police and employer
    Breaches of the picketing code will be a criminal offence
    50% and 40% ballot thresholds imposed
    Yet more bureaucratic balloting requirements which will be costly, time consuming and open to challenge by bosses and the CO
    The ballot notice to be given to bosses is extended (14 days) while the “life” of a ballot is restricted (6 months)
    Unions wanting to retain check-off will have to win the boss’s agreement and pay the cost
    After 12 month research, Minister can instruct any public sector employers to end facility time
    All new members will be required to opt-in to the political fund
    A state surveillance officer, the CO, will have vastly extended powers to investigate, condemn and fine trade unions on a wide range of issues

Carolyn Jones is the Director of the Institute of Employment Rights