‘Draconian’ Trade Union Bill clears second reading in Commons

The controversial Trade Union Bill, which will tighten rules on strike action by setting thresholds for strike ballots, passed its second reading in the House of Commons yesterday (14 September).

It was voted through by 317 votes to 284 after a heated six-hour debate in the chamber, during which Labour MPs dubbed it “draconian, vindictive and counterproductive”.

But despite opposition, BIS secretary Sajid Javid said it was “not a declaration of war on the trade union movement”.

He said during the debate: “It is simply the latest stage in the long journey of modernisation and reform. It will put power in the hands of the mass membership… and protect the rights of everyone in this country – those who are union members and those who are not, and those hard-working men and women who are hit hardest by industrial action.”

This was met with defiance by Dennis Skinner MP, who said that, if the Bill supported the workers, the trade unions would have backed it.

Skinner added: “This Bill is opposed by all those unions affiliated to the Labour movement and all those not affiliated to the Labour movement – even the Royal College of Nursing has said ‘no’ to this bill. It is a travesty and an intrusion upon the democracy of the workplace – get rid of it.”

The Bill would mean at least 40% of eligible union members will need to back a public sector strike to validate it – which Angela Eagle, the new shadow business secretary, called a deliberate attempt to “undermine the bargaining power of trade unions”.

However Javid assured MPs that it would not make strikes “illegal or impossible”, instead just requiring a “genuine and compelling case” by union leaders to secure the votes required.

“I believe that the vast majority of industrial action is unfortunate and unnecessary, but it is important that workers are able to go on strike. If union members truly want to do so, I will not stand in their way,” he said, adding that “democracy and accountability” are at the heart of the Bill.

Other measures include doubling the amount of notice unions have to give before they strike – from seven to 14 days – and allowing employers to use agency workers during strike action. Fines of up to £20,000 will also be imposed on unions if pickets do not wear an official armband.

In August, the government also announced that the practice of automatic deduction of trade union subscriptions from the salaries of public sector workers would be abolished under the Bill.

Although they called it a way to “modernise the relationship between employees and their preferred trade unions”, union figureheads labelled it a “spiteful” attack on its members.

Despite the debate outcome, TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the campaign against the bill is “far from over”.

He added: “We will continue to oppose it at each stage through parliament. And it was good to hear MPs from across the house recognise the huge threat this bill poses to civil liberties and fair treatment at work.

“Ministers have underestimated the public. People can see that allowing employers to bus in agency temps to break strike will tip the balance of power in favour of employers. And requiring unions to report to the police and employers what they will post on Facebook or Twitter two weeks before a strike is an obvious waste of police time.”

It will now have to undergo thorough scrutiny in a committee and receive approval from the House of Lords before it becomes law. The committee is expected to conclude its inspection by 27 October, with an announcement of its members expected this Thursday (17 September).

(Top image c. Tim Goode)


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