A Trade Union Freedom Bill, designed to redress the imbalance in workplaces left by Thatcherite anti-trade union laws has been narrowly defeated in Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly.
On the 1st of March, the second stage of the Bill, introduced by People Not Profit Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) Gerry Carroll, was defeated 43 votes to 38, as Alliance Party MLA’s joined the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in voting down the legislation.
Carroll’s Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill aimed to reduce the required notice period before a union can take industrial action from seven days to two day; lower the minimum number of employees needed for an employer to consider a request for industrial action by a trade union from 21 to 5; reduce the level of information required from unions before action can be taken and remove the requirement for a postal ballot process, when voting to decide whether to start industrial action.
Gerry Carroll is a Northern Ireland Assembly Member for Belfast West, and a member of People Before Profit (PBP), the socialist party formed in October 2005. The Trade Union Freedom Bill started its life in 2016, when former Foyle MLA Eamonn McCann submitted the Bill to the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, with the collapse of the Assembly for three years, Carroll took the decision to re-introduce the Bill.
What were the key changes that the Trade Union Freedom Bill was proposing?
In a column written in January, for the RebelNews website, Gerry Carroll outlined the main tenets of the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Amendment) Bill. In it, he said the Bill will:
- 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.”
Several unions, including the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) and the University and College Union (UCU) were represented outside Stormont ahead of the debate, urging the Assembly to vote for the Bill.
In the Chamber, Mr Carroll was scathing of those who intended to vote against the proposals, saying that if politicians wanted to prove their support for workers, they needed to “put their money where their mouth is”:
“There is an onus on the assembly to hear the appeal of workers that has been left shamefully untouched for over 20 years. This decade should be one in which workers’ rights are protected.”
You can watch the full Stormont speech here.
DUP Economy Minister Gordon Lyons, in response, criticised the proposals and insisted he could not support them, claiming that those calling for the reform were “silent” on the costs it would bring for businesses:
“I am concerned that the only reason for reducing the notice period would be to cause maximum disruption at a time we can least afford it. The goal here should not be to make it as easy as possible to take industrial action, it should be agreement rather than trying to move straight to the nuclear option.”
For now, the introduction of the reforms represented by the Bill have been stalled, but it is unlikely that this is the last we’ve heard of the Trade Union Freedom Bill in Northern Ireland. The next Assembly elections are due in May 2022 and Mr Carroll has said that he hopes to reintroduce the proposals in the next mandate.