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Preparing for the Tory onslaught

Aggressive anti-union laws are in the pipeline for Britain. Kerry Fleck asks what their impact on Northern Ireland will be, and will the Tories awaken a sleeping giant?

Within weeks of winning a surprise election victory, Britain’s first fully Tory Government in 18 years had announced plans for new laws that will further cut back the rights of trade unions and their members.

The Trade Union Bill, published in July, has its roots in the Beecroft Report, a series of suggested changes to trade union and employment law, authored by venture capitalist and Tory Party donor Adrian Beecroft.

The restrictions that will come into effect if the Bill is passed by the Westminster parliament include severe disruption to the ability of unions to raise income and have time allowed for representatives training. Most worrying the Bill could see an end to unions’ ability to carry out all but the most limited strike action with the curtailment of peaceful picketing, protests and the introduction of severe thresholds for turnouts in strike ballots.

The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) has launched a campaign against the Bill, with General Secretary Frances O’Grady stating that these new restrictions will render it “almost impossible for workers to exercise what are their democratic rights and civil liberties”.

Trade union legislation is devolved to the Stormont Executive in Northern Ireland. The current Minister of Employment and Learning is Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party. He said that he will not be seeking to implement the new laws.

However, these assurances will do little to assuage concerns among trade unionists. As General Secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) and President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions Brian Campfield points out: “Farry may not be the Minister responsible after the next elections and given the current instability of Stormont if the Assembly collapses and if there is direct rule for a period of time, the UK Government could decide to extend the legislation to Northern Ireland by a vote in Westminster. There is a big danger there and not only in relation to the anti-trade union legislation but welfare reform as well.”

The ICTU Assistant General Secretary, Peter Bunting, agrees, “Trade union freedoms are basic human rights of all people. The right to strike is a fundamental right and without those weapons we the workers would always be in a position of being repressed and we would be unable to ever improve our terms and conditions of employment and our wages.

“In the event of direct rule I believe that from day one the trade union movement would need to assert whatever strength it has to show that that we will not be pushed around, that there is a different ethos here, a cultural recognition of the role the trade union movement has played.”

The Northern Ireland Committee of ICTU is to join with the TUC to meet Northern Ireland MPs and argue their position.

In addition to supporting the TUC’s campaign, individual unions are making preparations for the impact of the legislation should it be passed. NIPSA, the biggest union in Northern Ireland, represents 45,000 public sector workers and is likely to be seriously affected if proposals to stop union members paying subscriptions directly from their wages are implemented.

“It’s a tall enough order to sign everyone up again,” said Brian Campfield. “It is resource-intensive and costly and we will likely need to increase our staff numbers to meet that challenge. But we must make preparations to circumvent the damage that could be caused”.

However, he further believes that Northern Ireland’s anti-discrimination laws may provide an avenue to resisting this change.

In the event of direct rule, the trade union movement would need to show that we will not be pushed around.

“An attempt to cease or stop subscriptions at source could constitute political discrimination under our fair employment legislation. Trade union activity is categorised as a political opinion and, if they stop trade union deductions at source, the question arises as to whether they are also going to stop deductions for the whole range of charities which people pay into direct from their wages. We will be seeking legal advice and consulting with the Equality Commission on that but we have to be prepared in any event.”

With the threat of the Trade Union Bill and possible ratification by the European Union of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) to worker’s rights, what is certain is that the trade union movement will need to adapt organisationally and tactically to survive.

“I do believe the next few years will herald a turning point for the trade union movement,” said Bunting, “As to whether it succumbs to repression or it stands up and fights for itself, as the founders of our movement did 100 years ago. Perhaps the trade union movement may have become too soft.

“Sometimes I think the trade union movement underestimates the strength it has, but [a fightback] has to be done on a collective and collaborative basis between all trade unions, to avoid a situation where unions are singled out, creating a fear where they think they cannot take on the Government.”

Campfield also believes tactics may need to change to respond to the new situation: “If our hands are tied in relation to our normal industrial responses I think inevitably trade unions are going to be forced to look at alternative responses to threats and attacks that may well include civil disobedience and protests, which in effect would mean potentially breaking the law. I don’t think there is anything in principle against taking that position but it would need to be well worked out as there is also a whole array of legislation which could be used to sequester trade union funds. In principle it may well come to that.”

In the long term, many leading trade unionists believe the movement may need to move beyond their traditional area of activity, in the workplace, and look at the role it plays in the community and in broader social movements.

“The Trades Council movement is already playing a role in engaging in local communities and was instrumental in involving communities groups in the [public sector] strike on 13th March, and we must extend and build on that work,” says Kevin Doherty from Belfast Trades Union Council.

Unite Ireland Deputy Regional Secretary, Jackie Pollock, suggests community engagement and working with broader social movements may be a route to reigniting working people’s faith in the trade union movement.

“Trade unions need to recognise that we need to be doing more than just supporting people in the workplace but working through our community sections to help the community as a whole.”

He added: “As trade unions we need to be focused more on community activism and development. The Right2Water campaign in the South has had marches with over 80,000 people on the streets, which is incredible when you think it isn’t just trade unions but that movement has come from the grassroots right up. Trade unions should learn that there will be uprisings from the community that they need to support and lead.

“We have to embrace a role within the community of helping the most vulnerable people who have been facing an onslaught from the various governments.”


Trade Union Bill

Among its proposals are:

  • a minimum 50% turnout in any strike ballot
  • require that at least 40% of those asked to vote support a strike in ‘key public services’
  • end public sector workers ability to pay subscriptions to trade unions directly through their salaries
  • make ‘unlawful or intimidatory’ picketing a criminal as opposed to civil offence
  • give employers the right to hire strike-breaking agency staff
  • require a union to give the employer at least a fortnight’s notice before the industrial action starts
  • allow employers to set a limit on the proportion of working time any public sector worker can spend on trade union duties
  • give employers more powers to initiate investigations into trade union activity
  • a consultation document linked to the Bill seeks to make unions give notice of “whether it will be using social media, specifically Facebook, Twitter, blogs, setting up websites and what those blogs and websites will set out”.
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