The TUC's Owen Tudor reports on the UK government's ongoing assault on union rights and why Valentine's Day may be a little different this year
On Monday (11 January), the UK's House of Lords began detailed consideration of the government's Trade Union Bill, the latest attempt to relive the Thatcherite dream of 'taking on' the trade unions and restricting our ability to defend workers' rights and public services.
The Bill emerged largely unscathed from the House of Commons before Christmas, although the government was forced to concede some ground on the more alarming attacks on the right to strike – such as the Orwellian requirement that unions should advise the police and employers of union social media strategies (but not vice versa.)
But the worst elements of the Bill remain intact. The decades-old ban on using agency workers to break strikes is still on the cards. So are the requirements that picket leaders should wear identifying armbands and provide contact details to the police (despite the fact that the police say there is no need for this waste of their time.)
Amnesty International along with the advocacy group Liberty and the British Institute for Human Rights have described the proposals as "a major attack on civil liberties in the UK."
The proposal to introduce new thresholds for ballots on industrial action remains in the Bill. All trade unions would need to achieve a turnout of over 50% for the ballot to be legally compliant.
But for 'important' public services, such as schools, transport and the NHS, this would also need to deliver a 40% 'yes' vote. Ministers say the changes would improve democracy. Yet they have bizarrely refused to agree to introduce electronic or workplace balloting, despite evidence of its positive effect on turnout.
At no stage has the government made a compelling or persuasive case for these measures: the number of days lost to strike action is at a historic low, and no reputable employer organisation has called for these measures (although some seem content to see whatever can be shaken from the tree.)
We can only conclude that the Bill is designed to prevent unions in the UK from doing our job – defending vulnerable working people from abuse by their employers and stopping us opposing the Tories draconian cuts to public services.
It's no accident, for instance, that another measure being proposed by the government is to prevent public sector employers from deducting union dues at source from workers' wages – even if those workers request it!
That is just a cynical attempt to make it more difficult for public sector workers to join the union of their choice, a flagrant abuse of freedom of association as defined by the International Labour Organisation and a clear attempt to undermine public sector unions' capacity to resist continuing cuts to public services.
The recently retired head of the UK civil service - Sir Bob Kerslake –has publicly accused the government of launching a co-ordinated attack on the democratic right of wider civil society to oppose its policies and actions.
In an interview with the Financial Times, he said: "Being a bit arrogant goes with the territory for a government, especially if you have won a mandate for a second term. But there are worrying signs of an authoritarian approach to government. ... if you add it all up you wonder if this is a government that wants to weaken people who have the temerity to take a different view."
And while all this is going on Prime Minister David Cameron has ensured a knighthood as reward for his hired hand, the right wing electoral strategist Lynton Crosby.
Over Christmas, two plans from Crosby's playbook finally coincided in his native Australia, when the Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) concluded an $80 million investigation into trade unions, just days after the wholly mis-named Productivity Commission recommended taking away Sunday penalty rates (overtime or unsocial hours payments) from hospitality and retail workers.
The purpose of the TURC has now been laid brutally bare – an attempt to throw mud at trade unions so that they are less able to defend some of the poorest paid workers in Australia.
Not too dissimilar to what the Conservatives are doing in Britain.
Having failed to find any mud to sling in the so-called 'Independent Review of the Law Governing Industrial Disputes', the government is now using every trick in the book to reduce our capacity to defend working people and public services.
We do have some friends in the House of Lords, though.
These are the people who, when they held elected office as leaders of British trade unions were vilified as 'trade union barons'. Now that they actually are Barons – like former TUC and ETUC General Secretary John Monks - they will be taking the side of vulnerable workers and seeking amendments to the Bill to maintain our democratic right to organise, campaign and the right to strike.
They will be joined by other members of the House of Lords, which, after votes this autumn to protect tax credits for the poor and extend voting rights to 16 and 17 year olds, is emerging under this government – as it was under the last one – as the main Parliamentary defender of democracy.
So the campaign against the Trade Union Bill continues, and it won't end in the House of Lords.
The TUC has announced plans for a week of action to promote trade unionism and workers' rights in the week leading up to Valentine's Day.
We couldn't call it anything else but #HeartUnions.
Make a date with us!