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The Trade Union Bill: Our Panel’s Reaction

Frances O'Grady, General Secretary of the TUC

As most people now know, the government’s Trade Union Bill threatens the basic right to strike. Employers will be able to break strikes by bringing in agency workers to replace strikers. And there will be major new restrictions on pickets and protests.

The bill will also give excessive new powers to the Certification Officer (CO), who is the government regulator for trade unions and employers’ associations. The CO will become investigator, judge and jury of trade union activity. And unions themselves will be made to pay for his new investigations through a levy.

The CO will be empowered to launch his investigations into a trade union without even having received a complaint from a union member. And all trade unions will have to submit detailed annual reports on industrial disputes and political expenditure to his office – a significant burden on unions that do not necessarily gather this data centrally. Employers may also be concerned to find that all of their workplace disputes may be on public display.

If the CO judges that breaches of regulations have occurred, he can issue fines of up to £20,000 a time.

The CO will also have wide ranging and intrusive powers to access and remove union records – powers that are unprecedented in modern UK labour relations. And their intrusive nature will cause privacy concerns to unions and their members – especially those who fear being victimised or blacklisted because of their union membership.

Stephen Cavalier, Thompsons Solicitors

One concerning element of the Bill is the proposal to hire agency workers to break strikes.

The government says that strikes will only ever happen as the result of a clear democratic decision. In view of that, it is wrong in principle and fundamentally objectionable to permit employers to use agency workers to break the strike.

The examples given by the government are examples of inconvenience to the public. These do not meet the international law tests of essential services, nor do they involve any threat to safety or security.
The government says that strikes in schools "Will mean that some parents of school age children will need to look after their children rather than go to work because some schools would not be able to fulfil their duty of care for their pupils during the strike". This suggests that the government regards schools primarily as a means of childcare for the benefit of working parents.

In essential services dealing with public safety, there are already in place well-functioning arrangements for emergency cover, for example in Fire Services and health, including midwifery. Introducing agency workers in those circumstances would be provocative and reckless. It will endanger the safety and health of the public and the workers themselves.

The repeal of this provision will put employment agencies and their workers in an invidious position. They will be placed in a position of conflict. They are unlikely to have the necessary training to fulfil the tasks expected of them. The public will have no confidence in services staffed by untrained agency workers. It is unrealistic and downright dangerous to expect that agency workers could take on such key roles. There will be no public support for such a measure.

Sara Ogilvie, Policy Officer at Liberty

The Bill will introduce harsher restrictions on those who picket peacefully outside workplaces – even though pickets are already more regulated than any other kind of protest. Unions will be required to appoint picket supervisors who must wear armbands and carry letters of authorisation, the absence of which could expose their unions to legal action.

Further proposals out for consultation could mean unions are required to provide a protest plan to employers, police, and other State regulators, revealing in advance if they plan to use social media, including Twitter and Facebook during their campaign and what they plan to set out on websites and blogs.

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.