At a time when wage rises are low, trade union membership is relatively low, and days lost to strikes are most definitely low, the government still considers it necessary to introduce a Bill that if passed, will make it even harder for trades unions to defend the interests of their members.
Already saddled with the most restrictive trade union regulations among western democracies, this new Bill, amongst other measures, will in effect make lawful industrial action much more difficult to organise, and it will criminalise peaceful picketing should the number of pickets rise above six.
And it isn’t even about union democracy. Turnouts in postal strike ballots are usually low precisely because they are postal. For whatever reason, many people either forget, or simply cannot be bothered to complete their ballot paper and take it to a post box. Unions are fully aware of this, and for years have been asking for changes to allow the use of online voting from a smart phone or tablet. The Conservative party isn’t interested.
We should be in no doubt that this draconian piece of legislation, if it becomes law, will further move the goalposts in favour of the already considerable power of employers. For let’s be clear, the main reason low paid and low skilled work is such a feature of our economy is due to the low level of collective bargaining between trade unions and employers.
As trade union numbers have fallen over the years (although they have stabilised now at around 6.4 million) the number of workers covered by collective bargaining has also fallen. This shortage of a union voice at the negotiating table leaves many employers entirely free to decide how much a worker is worth, often ensuring wages are set at the lowest rates that the market can afford rather than at the highest. Worse, in some sectors this lowest rate is simply the statutory minimum wage.
This new Bill therefore, will further stifle the already weakened bargaining power of our trade unions. Indeed, union members will find it increasingly difficult to achieve a deal that more closely reflects the value of their labour; and their ultimate way of showing that value – by withdrawing labour – will be greatly undermined.
That will be bad for us all. For if trade unions, through collective bargaining, are unable to improve wages, then there is no incentive whatsoever for employers with non-unionised workplaces to keep wages at levels comparable to union rates. The government will not only have weakened trades unions, but weakened the entire workforce. What’s more, with a smaller share going to the workforce, there will be more for those at the very top.