Trade Union Access to Workplaces — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 5:09 pm, 4th June 2019

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. She makes a good point about the gender disparity. It is interesting to note that female membership of trade unions has increased in the past year, but male membership has decreased. That does not read across the different sectors that she mentioned. It is important to recognise that issue, particularly when we look at casualisation in the workforce, which is a key driver of why workers are taking home less in their pay packets than they ought to.

Traditional collective bargaining in large-scale organisations and traditional large industrial workplaces are fragmenting, and the way people work is continually atomising. We need to adapt our trade union regulation and organisation to reflect the changing nature of our economy. The charity sector has not been penetrated by the trade union movement to the same extent. We need to tackle that. Great thought must be given to how to increase recruitment to trade unions in those non-traditional workplaces.

I will offer another view as to why trade union membership is so critical. In the past few months, I have been dealing with a major industrial dispute in my constituency. The Caley railway works, which has been around for 160 years, faces closure. From 1948 to 1995 it was part of British Rail, but it was privatised and sold off. It has been through myriad different owners, culminating in an overseas company purchasing it in an asset-stripping exercise. There are 200 people on that site, which faces closure. Thankfully, they have high trade union density—90%, which is fantastic—because the railway works was a traditional workplace. The trade union was able to swing into action immediately when the closure was announced.

In stark contrast, when the immediate closure of Jamie’s Italian was announced, the workforce were completely blindsided and had no capacity to organise and effectively agitate against that exploitation. People were told to go home with no recourse, redundancy payment or share in the liquidation of the company. With the potential closure of the Caley railway works, the trade union was able to organise to bid up the terms and conditions of severance for the workforce. The liabilities of the workforce were originally assessed as being about £700,000 to close the site. The trade union has now managed to negotiate almost £4 million from the employer to wind up the site. That is an amazing achievement, and the company has even offered to try to sell it or pay the Government to take the site off its hands, because the owners just want rid of it. That is just one example of how effective negotiation by trade unions can massively improve the hand of workers who face really difficult disputes with their employers.

I pay tribute to the tenacity of the Caley railway works workforce, who are facing the most testing conditions and were told just before Christmas—as is often the case—that they would lose their livelihoods. People have been working there for generations. Families have grown up and lived around the railway works their whole lives, to the point that in some cases people felt there was no other way out but to take their lives. The stress that the workforce have had to deal with has been absolutely appalling. I pay tribute to their tenacious work, particularly by Pat McIlvogue of Unite the union, in organising the workforce and keeping their spirits high at a really tough time. I hope the Government in Edinburgh will step in and take action to save those jobs and the workforce, because they deserve it. They deserve to have that commitment shown to them by the state.

The Government and trade unions can work in co-operation to ensure that we salvage the collective knowledge and skills of our workforce and redeploy them in the future, rather than see the industrial vandalism that has so often happened across this country, where we have seen industrial capability destroyed. With the lack of a trade union to organise, agitate and struggle against it, there has not been the fight that could have been mounted. I pay tribute to everyone in the trade union movement who has fought so hard for workers’ rights to capture a better share of workers’ efforts—in the form of labour—in wages, and to secure their rights and those of future generations who will follow in their footsteps, so that we have a prosperous society that gets a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.