Lyn Brown

Member of Parliament for West Ham

Trade Union Bill

Over sixty MPs are down to speak in the Trade Union debate today. Given I spoke on Friday, I won't be able to deliver my speech. Here is why I will be voting against the Bill. 

Mr Speaker. Keir Hardie, the first Labour MP, was elected to this House by the people of West Ham in 1892. It is by no accident that the proud trade unionist was first successful in an area which now forms part of my constituency. The Royal Docks, which I lived beside, supplied much of the employment for locals, and the dockers worked on a ‘call-on’ system of labour. They never knew when they were going to get work or how much they were going to get. Still they had to be available at the crack of dawn just in case there was a ship to unload. It was a zero-hours contract system in the 19th century. My grandad also stood on the stones but was never called: he was a trade unionist and was blacklisted.

The first majority Labour government abolished this appalling system of exploitation. They did so with former Docker’s Union official, Ernest Bevin, sitting at the cabinet table. It is only by generations of workers organising that we have secured the right to a decent living; a fair reward for the production of the enormous wealth of this nation.

The neighbouring constituency of Bow used to house the Bryant and May Matchstick Factory. In fact, my family grew up within walking distance of its chimneys. The factory was the site of the Bow Match Women's Strike of 1888 where working class women, subjected to the poison of white phosphorus, stood together in solidarity, demanding a safer working environment. And they won.

Trade unions continue to play a vital role today as the old evils that they were formed to combat are, in many ways, still with us. 744,000 people are trapped in zero-hours contracts, a further 1.7 million people are under-employed and seeking additional hours, and there were over 690,000 work related injuries last year. Worst of all, 142 workers died at work, including someone working in my constituency. That is why 6,400,000 of our citizens pay to be a member of a Trade Union. They recognise the vital role that Trade Unions play in leading campaigns such as shaming Pizza Express into no longer pocketing tips intended for staff.

A government with the best interests of workers and the economy at heart would want to work with organised labour. Unfortunately this Bill sets out this Government’s intention to do quite the opposite. It will make collective organisation far more difficult, it will subject workers to a barrage of unnecessary and burdensome regulation and, at its worst, it will deny workers their basic rights to freedom of expression and association. I think this Bill is frankly disgusting.

What are the Government’s motivations behind such illiberal proposals? A look at Britain’s industrial relations suggest that it can’t be a response to industrial strife. Our industrial relations are harmonious by both historical and international standards.

Last year there were 151 work stoppages which led to a total of 788,000 lost working- days. By contrast, 30 years earlier there were 1,206 work stoppages and 27,135,000 days lost for British workers. The current numbers are part of a long-term trend, with 1 working day being lost over this decade for every 10 that was lost in the 1980s. International statistics paint the same placid picture. According to the European Trade Union Institute, Britain has just over half the level of disputes as the EU average. Over the course of a year we lose 150 fewer days per 1,000 workers than the French. The Thatcherite Members opposite might be stuck in the 1980s but the working people of this country have moved on.

I can only conclude that the motivation behind these measures is both petty and spiteful. It is a Bill in search of a problem and it’s a Government in search of a fight. It is completely disconnected from the labour needs of this country.

Whilst it is clear that we currently have harmonious industrial relations, there can be no doubt that this Bill has the potential to return us to strife.

Last year workers voted to strike on 638 occasions, yet there were only 151 work stoppages. This disparity is because negotiators primarily use their authority to call a strike as a means of ensuring that their balloted members' claims and views are taken seriously. Strike action, even when approved by a ballot, is only ever a last resort.

The removal of rolling mandates, and regulations insisting that strike ballots name an expected date for industrial action, will eliminate the capacity for negotiators to use ballots with any flexibility. It is clear that strike ballots will become a blunt instrument, which have to be utilised to be effective. To anyone who understands industrial relations, this aspect of the Bill is clearly a recipe for more days lost to strike action. Workers, managers and the British public don’t want this, but it seems that is exactly what this Government is determined to do.

The proposals to prevent public sector employers from deducting union subscriptions at source are particularly spiteful. The jargon of modernisation is being used as an excuse to make it difficult for workers to pay subs. But there is absolutely nothing modern about creating duplication.

Public sector HR departments already process pension deductions, professional membership subscriptions, bike loan repayments, charitable donations and other collective endeavours pursued by employees. By denying workers the same right for industrial organisation, the Government are sending a clear message that they’ll do everything they can to disrupt union activity. The Government’s stance is weakened further by the former Chief Secretary of the Treasury, that renowned socialist Danny Alexander, who told his colleagues that there is ‘no fiscal case’ for these changes as costs are ‘minimal.’

Mr Speaker, I would now like to turn to the proposals to create super-majority requirements for strike ballots.

The 40% support threshold for key public sector workers, and the ‘majority of a majority’ proposals for all other workers, are entirely arbitrary. We accept the legitimacy of many democratic votes that fail to meet them. The Secretary of State for Business and Industry, for example, only received the support of 38.4% of the 73,337 people eligible to vote in his constituency. I have to admit that I too would fail to meet the threshold, and that is despite having one of the strongest mandates in Parliament. But I’m not the one proposing these radical changes. How can it be right for the Secretary of State to set a test of legitimacy for industrial democracy that he can’t even meet himself? Some democratic offices do not even meet the lower threshold. The Government’s Police and Crime Commissioners were elected on an average turn out of just 15%.

The thresholds are not only arbitrary but also unfair. The Government is still barring Unions from using online voting, which would allow Unions to reach all of their members during a ballot. If anything, this Bill makes paper balloting even more onerous by demanding all sorts of new information, and detailed descriptions of each dispute. This refusal clearly shows that the Government isn’t really interested in ensuring that workers are engaged in the democratic processes of their unions. It is just one more obstructing mechanism.

What we have here is a Bill in search of a problem and a Government in search of a fight. Anyone seriously interested in industrial relations in this country must reject this petty and counter-productive set of proposals, I shall do so with pride.





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