Why trade union rights are an important factor in the General Election

08 June 2017 As the electorate goes to the polls today, our Chair John Hendy QC and President Professor Keith Ewing, explain why trade union rights are an important factor for workers' future.

Commentary icon8 Jun 2017|Comment

Lord John Hendy KC

Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights

Professor Keith Ewing

President of the Institute of Employment Rights

08 June 2017

As the electorate goes to the polls today, our Chair John Hendy QC and President Professor Keith Ewing, explain why trade union rights are an important factor for workers’ future.

Why are trade unions important?

Trade unions play an essential role in democratic societies. They provide services to members, including legal services. In doing so they recover millions of pounds annually on behalf of workers who have been the victims of unlawful discrimination, injury at work, unpaid wages below the national minimum wage rate, unfair dismissal and redundancy.

But more than that, trade unions represent their members in their dealings with employers and, through collective agreements, negotiate better working conditions. It is widely recognised that workers represented by a trade union are more likely to have better terms and conditions than those who are not, and that they are better protected from bad management practices.

Trade unions thus help hold business to account by giving workers a voice in the workplace, enabling them to participate in making and administering the rules by which they are governed. They also expose and call out bad business practices, such as at Sports Direct and BHS, demanding better protection for workers.

And of course trade unions give workers a collective voice in the political arena, whether through the Labour Party or in lobbying for new laws. Over the last 150 years trade unions have been responsible for pushing through many Acts of parliament which protect workers and the standard of life of working people and their families.

Why do we need trade union rights?

Yet trade unions too need legal protection in order to allow them to function effectively. And this is recognised by international law. So, trade union members need protection against discrimination by employers. This may be because of their membership, or because they make use of trade union services or they are active on behalf of their trade union. The recent scandal when it was revealed that construction employers had maintained a blacklist of 3,000 trade union activists who had stood up for their members is evidence of the need for this.

Beyond that, however, trade unions need the right to bargain collectively with employers in those cases where the employer refuses to engage with the union. But some employers are yet more hostile and aggressive, and hire union-busting firms to prevent the workers ever being represented by a union. Unions need the law to protect them from such attempts by employers to exclude them from defending their members.

Trade unions also need the right of access to workers in the workplace for the purposes of recruiting and organising, and they need the right to represent members in disciplinary and grievance hearings. Trade unions also need facilities of various kinds to be provided by the employer if they are to function effectively, including time off work for shop stewards and branch officials.

The law plays a big part in regulating the sort of workplaces Britain has. Over the last few decades, there have been many new laws giving rights to workers, minimum wage, maximum working time, paid holidays, parental leave, equal pay for work of equal value, anti-discrimination laws and so on. But on the other side employers have exploited the law to have worker contracts that mean that they are no longer classed as ‘employees’ or are put on ‘zero-hours contracts’ and have been able to reduce the real value of wages (by giving wage increases below the rate of inflation).

Britain’s workers are more insecure now than they were a hundred years ago. This is because trade unions which collectively bargained the benefits that workers enjoyed prior to the Thatcher era have been systematically stripped of the capacity to match employers’ power. Successive governments have imposed and maintained restrictions on the right to strike, protected in international law. But trade unions need laws that will protect their right to support strikes by their members.

The right to strike has for a long time been recognised as an essential element of the right to collective bargaining: without the legal capacity to threaten and, if necessary, take strike action, collective bargaining would be little more than collective begging; like anyone else involved in negotiations, trade unions need leverage. Obviously, the right to strike cannot be unlimited and, indeed, international law recognises that proper limitations on the right are permissible. But, at the moment, the legal restrictions on the right to strike in the UK are in breach of international law – and have been for many years.

How will trade union rights be affected by the election?

In its 20 proposals to strengthen workers’ rights, the Labour Party proposes to strengthen trade union rights in the enterprise, by proposing a right of trade union access to workplaces to speak to members and potential members; a right for all workers to be represented by their trade union when negotiating with their employer; and the removal of the public sector pay cap, which has held down wages for millions of workers.

The Labour Party has undertaken to roll out sectoral collective bargaining.

In addition, Labour is proposing to deal with the blacklisting of trade unionists by holding a public inquiry, and using the power of the State to ensure that public contracts are awarded only to companies that recognise trade unions. And Labour is also proposing to repeal the Trade Union Act 2016, which imposes further swingeing restrictions on trade union rights in both the industrial and political arenas.

The Conservative Party, in contrast, appears to be proposing to build on the Trade Union Act 2016 with further restrictions in the manifesto which propose minimum service agreements during disputes on the railway. These will be negotiated not with trade unions but with ‘train companies and their employees to agree minimum service levels during periods of industrial dispute – and if we cannot find a voluntary agreement we will legislate to make this mandatory’.

Lord John Hendy KC

Lord Hendy KC is Chair of the Institute of Employment Rights. He is a barrister specialising in industrial relations law, based in Old Square Chambers, London. He is President of the International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR) and a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.

Professor Keith Ewing

Professor Keith Ewing is Professor of Public Law at King's College London. He has written extensively on labour law including recognition procedures and international standards. He is the President of the Institute of Employment Rights and a Vice President of the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom.