GMLC campaign volunteer Judy Sutton looks at changing trade union legislation in light of the recent wave of strikes. What would a Liz Truss-led government have in store for employment law and workers’ rights?
Trade unions and the cost-of-living crisis
On 2 August 2022, the oil and gas company BP announced their second highest ever quarterly profits, seeing its profits triple compared to this time last year to over £6.9 billion. BP was British government controlled until it was sold off in the 1980s, like many other formerly publicly owned companies.
In the meantime, average household fuel bills are now predicted to be £3600 per year (£300 a month) by this winter. The Consumer Price Index, which monitors the average cost of essential goods and services, continues to rise, currently standing at 10.1%. It is expected to rise further later this year to around 11-15%.
Wage stagnation has led to public sector workers experiencing real terms pay cuts of up to a third of their earnings when compared to what they were earning in 2010. Ordinary people are increasingly struggling to make ends meet.
Instead of dealing with this, the likely new Prime Minister Liz Truss has responded to this crisis by proposing regional pay cuts for public sector workers at a time when hospitals are having to set up food banks for their staff. She also proposed a series of measures designed to limit the power of trade unions. Though Truss has now U-turned on the suggestion of further pay cuts, the proposal shows a worrying policy direction potentially continuing into the future. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has also proposed a slew of new draconian measures in the Daily Mail.
Unions across sectors have tried to negotiate for basic cost-of-living pay rises, but many employers seem more concerned with maintaining, or even increasing, profits. Due to these conditions, a wave of strikes over pay and working conditions has followed, from transport workers to postal workers, bin workers, communication workers, manufacturing workers, Amazon warehouse workers, university workers and barristers. There is a real prospect of NHS workers, care workers, traffic wardens and teachers following suit later in the summer.
What have trade unions ever done for us?
The first meeting of the Trades Union Congress was held in Manchester in 1868. Their goal then, as now, was to fight for safer workplaces and for wages people can live on.
Since this time, trade unions have fought successfully for key changes that affect all workers. Examples include:
- A standard 40-hour week and a maximum 48-hour week averaged over 17 weeks, with some exceptions. Before this, working hours were long and mortality rates were high.
- Increased amounts of paid annual leave. Workers are now entitled to 5.6 weeks (28 days) of paid leave a year.
- Employers are obliged to abide by the terms of the employment contract.
- Lobbying for the introduction of flexible parental leave.
- Tackling all forms of discrimination in the workplace by supporting victims, monitoring examples, and providing legal advice to those whose rights have been breached.
- Campaigning for the introduction of a minimum and a living wage and calls to increase these.
- Ensuring negotiation and arbitration with employers on pay and conditions, resisting unfair changes that breach employment rights, or other legislation such as Health and Safety laws.
Why Strikes Work
The theory behind striking is that, when all other negotiations have broken down, the final power workers have to improve their conditions is through withdrawing their labour. This is because it is workers’ labour power that employers use to keep services running and, in the private sector, to make a profit. This power is important because in other ways, employers have vastly more power than workers – they have more money to spend on legal advice, more control over wages and contractual conditions, the power to dismiss workers and to discipline them, and the power to withhold a reference for future employment (just to name a few). The right to strike is one of the main counterbalances to employers’ power.
Strikes work. We have seen this repeatedly in history. This year, workers in Old Trafford at the Chep pallet factory won a better pay rise after striking. The pay they were being offered, given the cost-of-living crisis, would have been a real-terms pay cut, and their employer refused to pay more despite Chep UK making profits of £55 million in 2021. After a long all-out (indefinite) strike, workers managed to secure themselves an above-inflation pay rise of 9% in total, three extra days of annual leave, and a £1,000 lump sum each.
While trade union organised workplaces are more powerful, weakening the unions does not only cause problems for trade union members. The standard of pay and wages set by trade union-organised workforces affects us all, giving us better options when finding new jobs, and therefore forcing wages and conditions upwards over time. Without union power existing in society, employers can engage in a ‘race to the bottom’ in pay and conditions, knowing that workers can do little within existing law to prevent this.
Without trade unions, the law alone is currently not adequate to uphold workers’ rights and fair conditions. This is something the government has also exacerbated recently by minimizing workers’ package of legal rights, e.g. by only giving employees many rights after 2 years of employment. In 2012, legislation also removed Legal Aid for large swathes of employment law. Without trade unions, legal advice would be inaccessible to an even greater number of employees.
Trade Union Act 2016
The government of the 1980s sought to reduce the power and the ability of trade unions to organise. Backed by the media, they went on the attack, reframing the unions as the problem, claiming they had ‘unrealistic’ demands’ or that they were ’holding the country to ransom’. This narrative paved the way for the government to attempt to impose restrictions upon unions.
One of the most recent of these is the Trade Union Act introduced in 2016. Its purpose was to create barriers to union organising and activities. These included introducing a requirement of 50% turnout for trade union action. The Institute of Employment Rights has a simple guide to the 2016 changes here. Many ballots now fail because they fall just under 50% turnout, even when there is a resounding majority of union members who voted in favour of action.
At the time this article is being written, a leadership contest is taking place to establish who will be the UK’s next Prime Minister. Candidate Liz Truss has clear proposals on the unions that go even further than the 2016 Act, and she has promised to implement these within 30 days of becoming Prime Minister if elected. The candidate is reported to have said:
“We need tough and decisive action to limit trade unions’ ability to paralyse our economy. I will do everything in my power to make sure that militant action from trade unions can no longer cripple the vital services that hard-working people rely on.”
The new laws would:
- guarantee ‘minimum services’ operate during strikes for those working in ‘critical national infrastructure’;
- raise the minimum threshold for voting in favour of strike action from 40 to 50 per cent and expand the rule across all sectors of the economy (not just public services);
- double the notice period which a union must give, from announcing a strike vote to beginning industrial action, from two to four weeks;
- limit the number of days walkouts can be staged following a successful ballot;
- tax strike pay. Strike pay is paid by the unions. Union members contribute to the strike pay fund through subscriptions taken from their already taxed pay packet.
These proposals follow on from a recent change in legislation that allows agency workers to cover the work of striking workers, another attack on the right to strike.
The proposal that critical services must guarantee a minimum service is designed to hamper the power of strikes. It is also not needed, as employers can already liaise with unions to arrange emergency minimum cover during strikes affecting emergency critical services within, for example, the NHS, local government, the police or fire services, etc. The idea of a minimum service begs the question of who decides what ‘minimum’ and ‘critical’ are? This proposal threatens the very notion of the right to strike.
In relation to the new 50% threshold, very few MPs would be elected if they needed 50% of the total electorate in their constituency to vote for them! For the last 6 UK general elections, the overall turnout of voters has been below 70% of the electorate. No ruling party since 1945 has received more than 49.7% of the popular vote before taking power and claiming legitimacy to act.
Following a successful ballot, the proposal suggests limits on the number of days of strike action allowed within a 6-month period. Details are sketchy but this would mean that any strikes would have less impact, the option for ‘all-out’ strikes like at Chep would effectively be removed, and employers may be emboldened to ride out the storm rather than consider genuine grievances.
These proposals that could be implemented before 2022 is over follow on from other assaults on ordinary working people’s lives highlighted by the organisation Human Rights Watch.
In June 2022, International Trades Union Confederation published its yearly rankings of global worker’s rights violations, noting that the global abuse of workers’ rights has reached a record high. The UK is ranked a country where workers’ rights are ‘regularly’ violated. These changes could well see that ranking amended upwards to a systematic violation of rights.
The current government’s manifesto upon which it was elected, promises ‘fairness in the workplace’ and that ‘we want to make the UK the best place in the world to work’. They suggested reform to employment law and that they would ‘protect employees from unfair policies and discriminatory treatment’, but there is no sign of the new promised legislation to add further protections.
Greater Manchester Law Centre, trade unionists, social movement organisations and many opposition politicians are united in their condemnation of these proposals. The Guardian reports:
‘Mick Lynch, general secretary of the RMT said unions would organise mass resistance if the plans went ahead, calling it “the biggest attack on trade union and civil rights since labour unions were legalised in 1871.”
“Truss is proposing to make effective trade unionism illegal in Britain and to rob working people of a key democratic right,” he said. “If these proposals become law, there will be the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement, rivalling the General Strike of 1926, the Suffragettes and Chartism.”
This attempt to limit employment rights is set against the backdrop of a new generation of employees recognising the need to organise collectively. The TUC reports trade union membership is consistently growing again year on year, after decades of decline. Greater Manchester Law Centre’s experience of providing employment advice clearly demonstrates that where workers are organised and have collective bargaining power, they have better terms and conditions and are able to negotiate with employers on both an individual and workforce basis far more effectively. This is why we encourage all workers to join a trade union and to become active, particularly at a time when pay and conditions are under attack from increasingly deregulated working practices and the cost-of-living crisis.
Photo: Manchester TUC’s Ian Allinson addresses the crowd at a strike rally on 20 August 2022 in Piccadilly Gardens. The rally brought together strikers from Unison and the RMT, amongst others, and international trade unionists. GMLC will be hosting a book launch for Ian’s new book Workers Can Win with Manchester TUC on 21 September – more information here.