Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
My Lords, I speak from two perspectives on this Bill. My title comes from Stockport, where I grew up and where some of the earliest trade unions were active and powerful. As long ago as 1829, textile industry employers there reduced cotton spinners’ wages and brought in substitute labour, provoking strikes in Stockport that got violent. Troops were called in and there was one hanging and three transportations. I do not believe things are as bad as that today—certainly not in Stockport.
I grew up to study the trade union movement at university and was at one time a member of three unions simultaneously: the ACTT, the NUJ and Equity. The trade union movement in this country has sustained and fought for the interests of working people for over 100 years and will go on doing so. That is the past, but it is also the future.
Today, we see in the Bill a government attack on the trade union movement that is unremitting and partisan. It will, we recognise, strike a deep blow to the funding of the Labour Party, whose roots are deeply entwined since early in the 20th century with those of organised labour. In so doing, it will strike at one of the pillars of our democratic life by which ordinary working people can exercise some control over the forces that shape their lives.
In launching the Bill, the Government make much of statistics: percentages of the voters, of the workforce, et cetera. Let me offer as a sideline comment some other statistics. In 2014, according to statistics from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, there were 6.4 million trade unionists in this country, constituting 25% of the workforce. Membership of the Tory party is currently 150,000, and of the Labour Party 370,000. The Tories won the election by a majority of 12 seats in 2015, the smallest majority since 1974. They did so with less than 24% of registered voters—so let us not play with statistics.
It now seems that the Tory Government are embarked on a policy of redrawing constituency boundaries and the electoral registration rules in a way that is calculated to change the balance in favour of the Tory party. They do that in the name of efficiency, yet resolutely refuse to enter into discussions with trade unions to allow electronic and workplace balloting: a contradiction. In this flawed version of democracy, it is worth adding that 4 million people voted for UKIP and got only one seat in the House of Commons. Things are not fair.
We see in this Trade Union Bill just one part of a strategy that appears to be loading political representation of the people towards one end of the political spectrum. The trade union movement speaks to this crisis in constitutional affairs and calls for serious amendments to this Bill.
I shall now speak to the concerns of the NUJ, a small but important union with some 30,000 members that is not affiliated to any political party and does not have a political fund. Clause 9, on picketing, introduces a number of bureaucratic rules intended to make picketing more difficult and thereby weaken its effect. This impacts on the NUJ because of the known hostility of many employers and the media to trade union membership. To take a small example, only last year the
Rotherham Advertiser targeted the NUJ father of the chapel for compulsory redundancy. He had worked there for 30 years and was the only one of 14 editorial staff to be selected from the consultation. The workforce threatened a 24-hour strike and management rescinded its decision. We can do without this kind of confrontation.
The NUJ is also concerned, as are other unions, about the increasing involvement of the police in matters of picketing, in the giving of names and the ongoing surveillance of NUJ members investigating corporate and state misconduct. There should be no requirement to supply personal details of trade union representatives to the police, who may—who knows?—in some cases be the subject of investigative journalism themselves.
The trade union movement is a strong and vigorous part of our democracy. It is recognised and celebrated as such in our popular culture, in films such as “Pride”, “Brassed Off”, “Made in Dagenham”, in shows such as “Billy Elliot”, and in Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller’s “The Battle of Orgreave”, which is dedicated to the miners’ strike. These and many more celebrate the struggle working people have to live their lives in peace and security. That is why we seek to amend this damaging Bill.