Trade unions push for new employment law agenda

The Gate Gourmet dispute at Heathrow airport inflamed union passions. But it also highlighted concerns about the need, as they see it, for new labour laws.

During the annual TUC Congress week, these ideas came together, with leaders of the largest unions warning that support for any new Labour leader would be conditional on a review of workers’ rights. So what do the unions want?

Union demands
Apart from calls for measures to close the gender pay gap, further regulate low pay, counter the threat to employment from outsourcing and bring employment law into line with international labour standards (particularly the rules of the International Labour Organisation), improved private pensions and the rights of agency workers were also the subject of specific motions at Congress.

Unions want compulsory employers’ pension contributions of at least 10% of pay. And over the next year, we will see concerted trade union pressure for implementation of the proposed EC directive on temporary and agency workers, which would entitle them to full employment rights.

Finally, calls for the legalisation of secondary and sympathy industrial action, highlighted by legal constraints that arose during the Gate Gourmet dispute, were particularly strident. Trade unions are keen to secure a basic right to strike in UK law and to minimise the intervention of law in industrial disputes. In his speech, prime minister Tony Blair was clearly exasperated by this line of thinking, and chancellor Gordon Brown said there must be “no return to the old conflicts and disorder of the past”.

Opponents also argue that these laws are out of kilter with international labour standards. But there is now real pressure on Labour to revisit the anti-trade union legislation, introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which has been left largely untouched by subsequent Labour administrations.

Of course, the TUC Congress is characterised by rhetoric. But watch out for the promotion of the private member’s Trade Union Freedom Bill – sponsored by the United Campaign for the Repeal of the Anti-Trade Union Laws and the influential left-wing think-tank, the Institute of Employment Rights – in the forthcoming Parliamentary session.

Trade Union Freedom Bill
This Bill will propose a mechanism for the agreement of sectoral minimum terms and conditions, and broaden the right of a worker to be accompanied at workplace meetings by a trade union representative. It will also make provision to allow contractors to insist that sub-contractors recognise trade unions.

There would also be freedom to take solidarity action for workers in dispute with their employer, balloting and industrial action notice procedures would be abolished, and a new law would avoid industrial action being in breach of a worker’s employment contract by introducing the notion of suspension of the employment contract during a dispute. No dismissal for industrial action would be allowed, and automatic re-instatement would be the remedy for an aggrieved employee.

It is highly unlikely that such a Bill will be adopted in these terms by the present Labour government. But a future Labour leader may have to take some of these calls for change on board.

John McMullen is professor of  labour law, University of Leeds

Union labour law wishlist

  • Revival of the EU Temporary and Agency Workers’ Directive
  • Tougher legislation to close the gender pay gap
  • Employers to be compelled to make pension contributions of at least 10% of pay
  • A forum binding employers in each sector of industry to set minimum terms and conditions
  • Making solidarity industrial action lawful
  • Abolition of balloting and industrial action notice procedures
  • Making strike action lawful under the individual employment contract

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