Calls for change

Following the summer dispute at Gate Gourmet and subsequent calls at the TUC and Labour Party conferences for a change in law to protect workers from unfair treatment during a dispute, work on a draft Trade Union Freedom Bill has been swift and determined.

An Early Day Motion supporting the Bill was tabled last month in the House of Commons and has already attracted nearly 100 signatures from a broad spectrum of MPs. 

The proposed Bill focuses on four fundamental issues:

– The right of workers to take sympathy action after a ballot in limited circumstances

– The simplification of industrial action ballots, notices and injunctions

– Protection from unfair dismissal for those taking lawful industrial action

– The use of replacement workers during a dispute

Discussion around the content of the Bill is likely to be lively. However, it is generally agreed across the labour movement that situations like those at Gate Gourmet and, more recently, Irish Ferries, can no longer go unchallenged. 

It is argued that the UK’s framework of law needs to be modernised if it is to reflect the labour market realities of the 21st century.

Many commentators have suggested that the proposed Bill and its call for secondary action is a throwback to the 1970s. They claim there is no appetite for such legislation among Ministers or the electorate in general. 

But is that true? It’s clear the Prime Minister has no sympathy with the proposals. Nevertheless, support seems to be growing in Westminster. And what about in the workplace? To what extent is it acknowledged by HR professionals that a redistribution of power within firms may assist in promoting civilised industrial relations? 

Some companies are winning and maintaining lucrative contracts by cutting labour costs and exploiting vulnerable workers. How can other firms compete? Must they adopt the same bad practices to get a foot in the contractors’ door? And if they do, should workers simply accept their position within the widening gap between rich and poor?

Such aggressive managerial tactics may well be the result of the need to compete in a global market. But if globalisation means cutting wages and conditions of workers in small- and medium-sized firms to win contracts from large and profitable companies, perhaps we need to look for alternative ways to manage globalisation.

Those who think the Bill is a throwback to the 1970s need to wake up. The labour market conditions of today are very different and so is trade union strength. It is unlikely we will ever see the kind of action people anticipate. 

Moreover, it is the responsibility of those who would oppose the right of a trade union to take supportive action for members in distress to bring forward alternative proposals to protect workers from having their conditions unilaterally changed in breach of contract. 

When workers reach a point where they feel not only powerless to influence how their working lives are managed but also that their lack of power is being abused, calls for change will emerge. 

In these circumstances principles of sympathy, solidarity and support gain ground, not as a throw back to the 1970s, but a 21st-century response to a 21st-century problem. 

Carolyn Jones is a director of the Institute of Employment Rights think-tank and Keith Ewing is a director of IER


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