Anti-union stances within the Tory party are influencing frontbench ministers

The fourth in a series of articles looking at what the Coalition Timeline has taught us so far.

Commentary icon21 Feb 2013|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

21 February 2013

By Sarah Glenister, IER staff

The fourth in a series of articles looking at what the Coalition Timeline has taught us so far.

Boris Johnson’s goonish antics make it too easy for the general public to forget his nasty party allegiances, including his oppositional view on many trade union rights, but with the Coalition timeline we reveal what London’s Mayor and his Tory colleagues really think about the representation of workers in their own country.

In March last year, Johnson added himself to the many conservative politicians calling for anti-trade union laws to stop workers striking over his plans for driverless trains. “I am requesting a mandate from Londoners to push again for changes to national strike laws, so that industrial action can no longer be triggered by a small minority of union members,” he stated. In actual fact, there are already so many restrictions on trade unions that they are forced to jump through hoop after hoop to hold a strike. Additionally, as then General Secretary of the TUC Brendan Barber pointed out, it’s rather hypocritical for a party who did not receive enough votes to form a government without help from the Liberal Democrats to suggest that trade unions should receive more positive votes to take action themselves.

This wasn’t the first time Johnson had brought up his wish to suffocate union activity, either, having repeatedly called for the requirement of at least 50% of all members of a trade union to vote in a strike ballot to make a decision to take industrial action legal.

Among the most anti-trade union of his colleagues is Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, who managed to inspire widespread panic in March 2012 by telling the nation to stockpile petrol in case fuel tanker drivers went on strike. As is the case in many disputes, however, the union involved (Unite) was able to negotiate new terms with the employer without need for industrial action and the winding queues at petrol stations, the resulting congestion and, of course, the eventual fuel shortage were all down to Maude’s comments rather than any action by the unions.

But Maude was not easily put off his ideological ravings by this humiliating mistake and launched another attack on trade unions just four months later, publishing a consultation in July 2012 to cut facility time in the civil service. At the Conservative Party conference that October, he announced a limit on how much time trade union representatives could spend on their trade union duties to a maximum of 50% of their working day. There was also a ban on paid leave for workers who would use it to carry out trade union activities and only 0.1% of each department’s pay budget can now be spent remunerating employees for time spent on trade union duties.

Most recently, in November 2012, Maude was faced with accusations of anti-trade union sentiments when he gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on his new ideas for public consultation. Twitter users submitted questions to Maude on how his view that unions do not have enough of a mandate for strike action if anything less than a majority of their members vote on it squares with the very poor turnout for police commissioner elections. In response, he seemed to undo his own argument when he said: “There is no point at which you suddenly have complete democratic legitimacy or below which you have no democratic legitimacy.” His only concern, he claimed, was that trade unions damage their own legitimacy when they act on ballots that did not receive a high turnout.

Part of the evidence Maude gave to the House of Commons Select Committee was on his decision to allow ministers to cut calls for evidence and invitations to comment on proposals to a two-week period. This change, which was not open to public consultation itself, gave trade unions and other interested parties very little time to gather expert evidence and write a clear and considered response to consultations. Although the guidelines given to ministers suggested that the length of consultation periods should suit the complexity of the issues at hand, it became clear the discretion the ministers had been given was being abused. For instance, the wide-reaching proposals to introduce a new status of worker (as employee owner), which had numerous and complicated implications for employees, were granted just a three-week consultation period. The IER feels the new approach to consultations is being used as a way to reduce opposition for extremely unpopular proposals (the consultation on employee ownership received as few as two to five positive responses out of a total of 290 responses submitted), by not permitting trade unions, other organisations and individuals enough time to prepare a strong response.

The new approach to consultation was interrogated by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (SLSC) in December 2012, with Cabinet Office Minister responsible for coordinating government policy Oliver Letwin providing evidence. Following this meeting and a successful email campaign by the IER, in which 477 emails were sent to the SLSC to complain about the government’s changes to the consultation process, the Committee criticised the Coalition’s actions as not bringing any benefit to the public and called for an urgent, independent review into the new guidelines for ministers.

Another well-known trade union critic within the Coalition is Education Secretary Michael Gove, who is also a leading Tory. The minister has made his position clear when it comes to public spending over the last few years: taxpayer money is for buying huge royal yachts, not for paying teachers.

Underlying these actions is the hardline anti-trade union stance that permeates the Tory party, which is perfectly encapsulated by former special adviser to the Prime Minister Sean Worth’s recent comments in the Telegraph. In an article for the paper he compared his party’s ideological fight against trade unions to “guerilla warfare” and even recommended the use of the counterinsurgency tactics of army officer Robert Thompson, who he described as “free-thinking”. The Morning Star pointed out that Thompson is famous for withdrawing food and other necessities from the population to “win their hearts” and break the link between the people and the militia.

In between tales of Boris’ buffoonery, a large proportion of the public are fed with heavily biased reporting from the right-wing press attempting to smear trade unions and their leaders as wealthy ‘barons’ interrupting everyday life on the streets of Britain. The Daily Mail even blamed the accidental death of one young girl, who was hit by a falling branch while sitting in a park, on striking teachers in one astonishing article. But let us not forget what hard-earned successes the trade union movement in helping to bring the UK out of the depths of its regressive Victorian ways to introduce the laws all our employees enjoy and increasingly take for granted, regardless of their political persuasion, including: the two-day weekend, the eight-hour day, the minimum wage, paid holidays and maternity and sick pay.

Click here to visit the Timeline. In order to see just public sector stories click the spanner in the bottom left of the timeline, select ‘categories’, then select ‘Trade Union Rights’.

Click here to see more articles from this series

Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.