Back to a Trade Union Bill in the United Kingdom

The new majority Conservative government seems to be seeking to complete some of its unfinished business from the 1980s

Jason HeyesThe Trade Union Bill, which is currently making its journey through the House of Lords, is the most controversial piece of industrial relations legislation introduced in the United Kingdom since the Conservative Party’s assault on trade unions in the 1980s and 90s. If passed without further amendments, the legislation will potentially weaken the ability of trade unions to take industrial action in a number of ways.

Firstly, new thresholds will be introduced for ballots for industrial action. For industrial action to be lawful, a 50% voting threshold for ballot turnouts will be required, in addition to the current requirement of a majority vote in favour. The threshold will be even more restrictive in ‘essential public services’, where it will be required that 40% of those entitled to vote approve industrial action before it is taken. Secondly, the period of notice which trade unions will have to provide employers before taking action will be doubled from 7 to 14 days and mandates for industrial action will be limited to three months. Thirdly, employers will be permitted to replace striking workers with agency workers. And, finally, there will be additional restrictions on picketing.

As if this was not enough, the government also intends to cap facility time in the public sector, whereby time-off is granted to a union representative to carry out union work; end the check-off system in the public sector, whereby trade union members’ subscriptions are paid via their employer’s payroll; and change the rules relating to the so-called ‘political levies’ of trade unions by requiring members to ‘opt in’, rather than ‘opt out’.

The legislation is similar in intent to that passed during the 1980s, but goes beyond anything attempted by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Having recently formed a majority government for the first time in eighteen years, it appears that taking on the unions remains unfinished business for the Conservative party.

The industrial relations context of 2015 is, however, very different to that of the 1980s. Thirty-five years ago, so-called ‘restrictive practices’, supposedly forced on employers by over-mighty trade unions, were widely regarded as a cause of the UK’s poor productivity performance and a justification for the Conservative government’s industrial-relations reforms. In reality, job controls and demarcations were often the product of formal or informal negotiations and did not necessarily represent a problem for employers. But now, in 2015, no-one can plausibly argue that trade unions are responsible for the UK’s poor productivity record. Indeed, somewhat ironically, recent research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that many workers believe that unnecessary employer-imposed rules and procedures prevent them from being as productive as they would wish.

The Conservative government’s Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, has said the new legislation is needed in order to stop ‘endless’ threats of industrial action. But, as has been widely noted, strike action in the UK is a small fraction of what it was in the 1970s and 80s. According to the Office of National Statistics, 151 new stoppages were recorded in 2014. By contrast, at least 2,000 new stoppages occurred almost every single year between 1955 and 1979. The relationship between the number of strikes and the number of working days lost to strike action (i.e. the number of days of strike action multiplied by the number of workers involved) varies considerably, but there has undoubtedly been a substantial reduction since the 1980s. An estimated 788,000 working days were lost to strike action in 2014, whereas, in 1980, the year that Margaret Thatcher’s government implemented its first (relatively modest) industrial relations reforms, no fewer than 11,964,000 days were lost to strikes. In sum, in only four years out of the past 23 have more than one million working days been lost.

What is more, trade union membership and the coverage of collective bargaining have declined substantially since the 1980s. De-industrialisation has left unionisation and collective bargaining largely concentrated in the public sector, which is presumably why the government has chosen to focus the most restrictive elements of its reforms on public servants. Concern about possible strike action in response to further cuts in public spending and jobs might also be a factor.

A final difference compared to the 1980s relates to the wider support for reform. Although employers’ bodies (in particular, the Institute of Directors) were generally enthusiastic about the earlier reforms, their response to the Trade Union Bill, although largely positive, has been more cautious. The Institute of Directors has even supported the call of the Trade Union Congress (TUC) for the introduction of electronic voting ballots, something which the government has refused to countenance. Others have been highly critical of the proposals. The Regulatory Policy Committee, for example, has declared the Bill ‘not fit for purpose’ and emphasised that there is no evidence that it is required, a view echoed by former Business Secretary in the preceding coalition government, Vince Cable. For its part, the CIPD believes the legislation to be ‘outdated’ and would prefer that the employment relations policy agenda focused on supporting consultation and dialogue. Even some Conservative MPs, notably David Davis, have criticised certain elements of the Bill.

The point is that this backward step to the 1980s will do nothing to improve industrial relations or the health of the UK economy. Strikes are normally a last resort when all other attempts to resolve differences between unions and employers have failed. Reducing the ability of workers to take strike action will not address the underlying causes of conflict and suppressing industrial action may give rise to alternative expressions of employee discontent. Certainly, a low incidence of strike action should not be taken as clear evidence of a healthy industrial relations climate, particularly when it is brought about by the use of state power.

Furthermore, this assault on trade unions can only exacerbate the entrenched social problems of the UK, notably increasing income and earnings inequality. As shown by (among others) Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett in their book the Spirit Level and Tony Atkinson in his recent book Inequality, countries with relatively strong trade unions and extensive collective bargaining tend to perform relatively well in terms of equality. It is no surprise, then, that income inequality in the UK increased so much after 1979 as trade unions became weaker and collective bargaining coverage receded.