Margaret Thatcher despised the trade union movement. She set out to dismantle the power of unionised workers, who she referred to as ‘the enemy within’. Even before she took office as Prime Minister, she said that the Conservatives should, “neglect no opportunity to erode trade union membership”.
Once in power, her Tory government enacted the Employment Acts of 1980 and 1982, restricting the right to strike in support of other work forces – solidarity action.
In 1982, miners in Britain had gone on solidarity strike in support of nurses’ pay claims, throwing their industrial muscle behind under-pressure hospital staff. Train drivers refused to cross picket lines, in order to avoid moving coal during the 1984-85 miners strike. Shortly after, all solidarity action was made illegal.
A slew of other legislative restrictions were pushed through which made it much more difficult, and time consuming, for workers to organise and take industrial action.
Decades on, much of this legislation remains, with little challenge presented from pro-business New Labour Governments who defended and upheld every part of the anti-strike legislation. Blair himself said: “it would be dishonest to tell you any Labour government is going to legislate a return to secondary action. It won’t happen”. Only under Jeremy Corbyn did a Labour manifesto finally call for a “repeal of anti-trade union legislation”.
What may come as a surprise is that the changes delivered by Thatcher were implemented in the North of Ireland before devolution, without the consent of the people. Like Labour, subsequent Stormont Executives have refused to reform these laws, and they remain on the law books more than twenty years later.
That is why, on 30 November, I officially submitted the Trade Union Freedom Bill at Stormont. This Bill attempts to redress the imbalance in workplaces, left by Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws.
The need for fighting unions
The Bill could not be more timely. Not only are we seeing an increase in in-work poverty and cost of living hikes, but these are not being matched by decent pay offers. Terms and conditions have been eroded ongoingly for decades, and with the introduction of measures such as zero-hours contracts and casualisation, workplace precarity is at an untenable level.
Moreover, the COVID pandemic has exposed the importance of workers to society for a whole new generation. The same nurses who were forced to stand on freezing pickets in 2019 were suddenly lauded and applauded by Ministers whose Executive were the reason they were on strike in the first place.
‘Frontline workers’ became a key phrase for the media overnight, as the council workers, shop workers, and many thousands of others who keep food on the shelves and our communities ticking over every day were finally acknowledged for that work.
Disgracefully, and before the pandemic is even over us, many of those workers have been forced to threaten or engage in industrial action. The Hovis workers who literally kept bread on tables were forced to strike for pay parity, and they won.
UCU workers who maintained students’ education to the best of their ability despite universities and governments failing to put in place adequate pandemic measures, were forced to picket in recent weeks because of precarity, pay gaps, attacks on pensions, and more.
Childcare workers in Queens, port workers in Derry, Moy Park workers who walked off the job in protest at COVID conditions; all forced to take action. Tesco workers who, again, kept food on shelves, and healthcare staff who have been offered a disgraceful below inflation 3% pay offer, have been forced to threaten action.
As an elected socialist, I see it as my job to give a platform to workers’ struggle. Indeed, every People Before Profit elected representative has been at every picket possible in recent months and used every platform possible to highlight and build support for these strikes.
Moreover, when I was elected in 2016, alongside long standing socialist Eamonn McCann, our first action was to submit the Trade Union Freedom Bill. With the collapse of the Assembly for three years, I have re-submitted the Bill and do whatever it takes to get it over the line.
Changing the narrative
Though it cannot contain every change workers and unions need to see, and it is just the beginning of a process that restores power back to the labour movement, I believe that this legislation could be groundbreaking.
Not only can this Bill implement important changes which I will outline below; it will kickstart a national conversation about the importance of trade unions, of organised workers, and the power of fighting back. The right wing media portray every picket as an attack on business and services, and that is rarely contradicted beyond small snippet quotes from trade union leaders.
We want to engage people in communities across Ireland about why trade union rights were attacked in the first place, and the incredible victories for workers and their families which could be possible by repealing those attacks.
And finally, the attacks didn’t stop with Thatcher. As recently as 2016, the Tory government introduced a new Bill to restrict trade unions. Thankfully, that was not implemented at Stormont, but I hope to set down a marker for the millions of workers not just in Ireland but across the water: what the parliament does, workers, communities, and the streets can undo.
That is why I am very grateful to have received overwhelming support from workers and communities for this Bill, some of whom joined us to launch the Bill despite cold and pandemic conditions.
That kind of support will be key in building pressure from below to get these changes over the line. I am very pleased to have been able to work with trade union members, from NIC-ICTU to local branches, to shape this Bill and to build momentum for it. Without momentum, those who support restricted workers’ rights are unlikely to give us any support.
With an upcoming election, it is very important that we can build pressure on MLAs who will be seeking re-election: back the workers, back the Trade Union Freedom Bill, or lose our vote.
What will the Trade Union Freedom Bill do?
- Legalise solidarity action:
Unpicking the cornerstone attack of Margaret Thatcher, this will allow trade unions to strike in solidarity with others. In most other countries there is no law prohibiting workers striking in support of another group of workers.
When the 2019 Labour manifesto promised to legalise solidarity action, the Daily Telegraph said: “Labour manifesto would allow mass strikes to paralyse the country,” while the Daily Mail proclaimed “John McDonnell tries to take Britain back to the strike-filled 1970s.”
And we could expect similar attacks from right-wing media, politicians, and those who represent business interests as this Bill progresses through Stormont. The reality, however, is that we are in a period defined by low wages, precarious conditions, and attacks on social welfare. Over 10% of workers in Belfast earn the minimum wage or below.
We have also seen the power of solidarity in recent months as a mini strike wave in the North has inspired solidarity from one picket to the next. These workers should be free to decide to withhold their labour in solidarity with each other, and the result will undoubtedly bolster the outcome of industrial action.
- Mandate more employers to recognise a trade union:
If your employer refuses to recognise your trade union in the workplace, you can pursue legal action to have the state mandate such recognition. However, only workplaces with 21 or more employees can avail of this.
93% of workplaces across the North have less than 21 employees, meaning they have no power to force an unwilling employer to recognise their collective bargaining.
The Bill would reduce the mandatory minimum number of employees from 21 to 5. This change has the potential to see hundreds of thousands of predominantly private sector workers join a trade union and fight for better conditions in their workplace.
Obviously, this would dramatically bolster the ranks of trade unions too, a step change from the declining membership of many unions for decades.
- Remove limitations on workplace negotiating:
Currently, trade unions are limited to negotiating with employers on matters limited to: pay, hours, and holidays. The result is that many issues which arise for workers are off limits for their trade unions. The point of this is not only to reduce the power of a union in the workplace, but to cause a knock-on decline in trade union membership because workers see less value from their monthly sub.
The Bill would lift these limitations, allowing unionised workers to be represented on all issues relating to pay, terms, and conditions. As well as the obvious result for workers battling unfair conditions, I hope this will kick-start a renewed conversation in communities and workplaces about the merits of joining a union.
- Bring balloting into the 21st century:
Currently, trade unions must ballot for strike action and internal elections via postal vote. This not only costs a substantial amount of money (hundreds of thousands for bigger unions), but according to the TUC, it is responsible for diminished participation in balloting. In the 21st century, and particularly during a pandemic which has forced much of our activity online, there is no excuse for forbidding unions from balloting by email or app, or even in person.
Technology is such that these ballots can be protected, while also making the balloting process much more convenient and cost effective.
- Shorten and simplify notice periods before strike action can be taken:
Currently unions have to give 7 days notice to an employer before they ballot in a workplace for industrial action. This provides an overwhelming advantage for employers to engage in nefarious tactics to pressure workers to not vote for action, including threats of reduced hours or the sack.
The bill proposes to reduce the notice period from 7 days to 2, removing barriers to striking while the iron is hot. However, trade unions may choose to provide more than two days notice, if this would aid negotiations with the employer.
When conducting a ballot, the Bill also seeks to reduce the volume of information which must be provided by a trade union to an employer. The meticulous records which must be maintained by trade unions in order to provide such levels of information, including home address and contact details for workers, can be incredibly time and money consuming.
It also leaves the union at risk of an ensuing action being found to be illegal, if some small detail provided is incorrect. The Bills clause to simplify this information recognises the current law as unnecessarily burdensome and penalising for unions, creating an unfair imbalance toward employers.
- Provide greater protection for workers dismissed for taking industrial action:
Workers dismissed unfairly because of their participation in industrial action have the right to challenge their dismissal, however this right is time limited. The Bill would expand the time-frame under which an employee who was dismissed unfairly can challenge this decision, to five years.
Every single one of these changes is aimed at strengthening the hand of workers in a period where it is very much called for. Workers on low wages, precarious contracts, who have been unfairly dismissed, who may not be able to join a trade union – will all benefit from this Bill if passed. In 2021 – that amounts to most of us.
If you would like to express solidarity with the Bill or to learn more, please reach out via the official page – Trade Union Freedom Bill. Join us, to make this decade a decade for workers.