Tuesday 12 September 2006

Time for a Trade Union Freedom Bill

At the TUC this week, I have been busy launching my Trade Union Manifesto. Last night, at a fringe meeting of the TUC organised by the Institute of Employment Rights and the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws, I explained the details of the Trade Union Freedom Bill which is critical to the success of any future Labour Government.

Workers and trade unions in Britain today have fewer rights than anywhere else in Western Europe. Not only do trade unionists risk losing their jobs if they take industrial action, but their union faces the confiscation of its assets and, potentially, total demise if they are associated with action in solidarity with others.

A Trade Union Freedom Bill will bring the rights of British workers into the 21st century. We have already won the argument in the labour movement. It's the policy of the TUC and Labour Party Conference voted to back solidarity action last year. 167 Labour MPs have backed the demand for such a Bill. The Cabinet - including the Chancellor - are increasingly isolated in their opposition to thisBill.

However, I realise that many in the wider community have only heard about this campaign for workers' rights through the media, which is largely hostile to the Bill. That's why it is our duty to go out and explain to people why this Bill is so important for improving the quality of their life at work. I believe that we can achieve a consensus right across our community in favour of this legislation, including on both sides of industry.

We did it with the campaign for a Minimum Wage by explaining how it would work and what its implications would be. We can do it again.

I am calling upon the TUC and the Labour party to combine in a joint hearts and minds campaign to win majority support for the Trade Union Freedom Bill, and then to subsequently introduce the Bill into Parliament on a wave of consensual support.

Let me explain the main points of this proposed Bill:

Better protection for workers
The Bill would give all workers the right to strike or take official industrial action free from the fear of dismissal or victimisation. Employers will be prevented from sacking or penalising staff for taking action before, during or after a dispute. Employers would also be banned from taking unfair deducations from workers' pay packets for taking official industrial action and ensure that workers have the right to pay for the work they do.

Workers will be given the right to enforce the rights easily and effectively. Courts will be able to order employers to stop penalising staff before a full hearing and order that sacked workers should get their jobs back.

Employers would also be prevented from hiring agency workers to carry out work normally done by staff taking official industrial action.

Cut red tapes for unions
The Bill will simplify bureaucratic rules about industrial action notices and ballots. Unions will have to give only seven days' notice of their proposed start of industrial action and will not have to give notice of a ballot. They will also be free to ballot for action, even if previous calls for industrial action have been unsuccessful.

Employers will not be allowed to use legal loopholes to get injunctions stopping industrial action. Injunctions will not be granted for minor technical errors when a clear majority of members have voted to back industrial action.

Balloting rules will be brought into line with how MPs elected - that is, ballots will stand unless unions make a mistake that could have changed the ballot result.

Supportive action
The law on industrial action is years out of date and fails to recognise changes in the economy like contracting out, modern business structures and the complex patterns of modern ownership.

A Trade Union Freedom Bill will give unions the ability to take industrial action:

- over the terms and conditions offered by a future employer where jobs are being transferred to the new employer

- against associated employers of the employer involved in a primary dispute, which will help to ensure that employers cannot use technical loopholes to prevent workers in the same workplace, with the same management structure and effectively the same employer from taking action in support of each other.

When there is official action being taken in one workplace, supportive action against another employ should be allowed after a ballot:

- when work or production has been transferred to that employer during a dispute or during a strike; or

- where a union is taking defensive action int he first workplace and the other employer has contributed to the dispute, for example, by aggressively cutting costs.

This is a fight for justice which I believe we can win.

I'd be interested in hearing your own thoughts.