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Trade Union Bill

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 26th January 2016.

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Photo of John Wilson John Wilson Independent

I declare an interest in relation to the debate, as I am a registered member of Unite the union and a member of the RMT parliamentary group.

I thank the Scottish Government for bringing the debate to the chamber and the Devolution (Further Powers) Committee for its report. It is a vital debate and of particular interest to me. Trade unions are a vital resource for workers across a broad range of industries. The Trade Union Bill represents nothing less than an attack on the rights of trade unions and, as a result, the rights of workers throughout Scotland and the rest of the UK.

As I said in the recent debate on the oil and gas industry, I applaud the role that the trade movement played in securing and defending the rights of workers in that industry, especially on health and safety issues. We have a duty to listen to the trade unions that represent workforces throughout Scotland. The STUC, COSLA and other organisations have made their professional opinion on the matter clear: the Trade Union Bill is a draconian, archaic and politically motivated piece of legislation. It is an attack on trade unions and nothing more.

Trade unions organise workforces, represent the workforce and ensure that workers are protected in more ways than just earnings. They protect workers on health and safety and make representation on behalf of workers. The facility time that we are talking about the Trade Union Bill eroding is time that trade unions take to represent their members on a wide range of issues to their employers and others.

The right to strike has had a long and proud tradition in Scotland and the UK. It is a fundamental right. People who take strike action do not do so lightly. When we went on strike when I worked in industry, the majority of workers lost financially by doing so but won the right to protect their rights and the health and safety conditions for which they had fought.

The right to stand up to employers and businesses and demand a certain standard of rights and welfare in employment is fundamental to our society. It is fundamental to creating a just and fair society for all. The Trade Union Bill comes from an incorrect assumption that striking is a problem in modern-day UK. According to the STUC,

“Last year there were only 151 strikes. Less than 2 per cent of workers participated in a strike. The days lost due to strikes were less than 3 per cent of the 28.2 million days lost due to work related accidents and ill-health.”

If the Tories wanted to stand up for working families, as they keep on claiming that they do, they would protect health and safety legislation and ensure that workers have safe, fair contracts that allow them to work in a consistent and stable manner. They would also ensure that workplace health and safety representatives were protected against employers who wished to undermine hard-fought-for protections in the workplace.

The Trade Union Bill is undemocratic and anti-worker. The imposition of a minimum 50 per cent turnout of eligible voters is a nonsense. The UK Government would not have been elected if it had required 40 per cent of the eligible voting public to support it. The UK Government has claimed that it is attempting to increase democracy in the workplace by imposing these restrictions. However, greater restrictions on vote results will serve only to strangle democracy.

The UK Government is consulting on draft regulations that will allow employers greater freedom to employ strike-breaking temporary workers. That fundamentally undermines the right to strike and the purposes of striking. Undermining the purposes and actions of the strike undermines the democratic principle behind the strike, once again showing how the legislation does not increase workplace democracy, as the Tories have claimed, but instead simply serves to undermine and attack trade unions and their right to collective action.

A lot has been said today about political funds, and I suggest that Alex Johnstone, in particular, goes and looks at the relevant legislation that the Tories introduced in the 1990s to undermine the political representation that unions can make on behalf of their members. Political funds are not about funding political parties; they are about allowing unions to protect their members and represent them in relation to electoral and other campaigns, and they enable unions to put across their members’ views in those elections.

On the issue of whether the legislation that goes through Westminster is legal, it can be legal, because it may be passed by Westminster, but I would argue about whether it is legitimate to put in place some of the legislation that is currently being proposed. The embarrassing thing for the UK Government at the moment is the fact that the junior doctors—a sector that is the least organised in our workforce—have highlighted the role that the UK Government is playing in undermining the rights of workers not only in industry but also in the NHS.

This legislation is a precursor to attempts that will be made by the Westminster Government in the coming months and years to undermine the fundamental rights of workers to withdraw their labour and of unions to represent their members and campaign for better rights, better health and safety and better workplace security. This legislation clearly shows that the Conservative Government is interested only in protecting the rights of employers and undermining all the other rights that have been hard fought for by the trade union movement over the centuries.