Big Debate: Is it right to make it harder for Newham workers to strike?

TUC members queue outside the Houses of Parliament to lobby against the Trade Union Bill Photo

TUC members queue outside the Houses of Parliament to lobby against the Trade Union Bill Photo: Anthony Devlin/PA - Credit: PA WIRE

This week’s Big Debate asks if Parliament should pass the controversial Trade Union Bill.

Lois Austin, left and John James

Lois Austin, left and John James - Credit: Archant

How much notice should unions give before a strike? Should companies be allowed to use agency staff when employees take industrial action? What percentage of workers should vote for a strike before one goes ahead? These and many other questions are being fiercely debated as the Trade Union Bill makes its way through Parliament. So we asked Lois Austin of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition and John James, secretary of the Newham Chamber of Commerce: Should Parliament pass the Trade Union Bill?

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Lois Austin, Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition

The government’s Trade Union Bill is the biggest attack on workplace rights since Margaret Thatcher’s years in power.

Jeremy Corbyn’s victory in the Labour leadership contest and the defeat of the Tories’ tax credits cuts in the Lords show the powerful anti-austerity mood in society.

The Tories know unions offer the most effective opposition to their austerity agenda of job losses, wage cuts and privatisation. That is why they want to emasculate the unions’ right to organise and strike.

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The Bill is a huge threat to civil liberties. Newham was the cradle of modern trade unionism but here, as elsewhere, the hard-won right to strike is fundamentally threatened.

Cameron’s government was elected by just 24 per cent of voters yet it wants to impose voting thresholds on unions.

Picket supervisors will have to give their details to the police, and unions face court injunctions and possible damages if an organiser does not wear an armband.

Ministers plan to allow employers to break strikes with agency workers.

The Bill caps time off for public sector trade union reps.

The removal of union membership subs being deducted from payroll is an attempt to bankrupt the unions. But if the unions are prepared to take on this challenge, they can win. The union I work for, the Public and Commercial Services Union, saw off this Tory attack by signing up 90pc of members to direct debit this year.

This government has already been met with the Tube strike over the summer, the strike on the DLR and junior doctors balloting to strike. The Tories are on the back foot and can be beaten.

The government dropped plans in the Trade Union Bill to make unions give two weeks’ notice on their use of social media during a strike.

John James, secretary of Newham Chamber of Commerce

Strikes like those bringing the Underground system to a close are, I suspect, behind the government proposals. How right they are. It is madness for a few activists to bring a city to chaos.

As a former regional union official, I support the right of union members to take industrial action, but the action must be decided by the majority of the members in dispute.

Generally, this happens now within private industry. It is the outdated public body activists where the problem lies – people who think there is nothing wrong in the views of a few deciding the futures of many. I do not understand why a smaller percentage of public sector people are required for a strike to be formally accepted. They, too, should require at least half voting for a strike.

The strike notice extension certainly helps employers plan. It also gives an opportunity for an extended breathing space for constructive talks between staff and bosses.

Armbands for supervisors will prevent vigilante infiltrators interfering in any strike – a sight too often seen.

The use of agency staff in a strike is nothing new. It is, however, a recipe for sparking increased reactions from strikers. Employers need to keep their customers happy, otherwise there is no work for anyone. However, they need to keep staff onside. It seems, too often, that industrial disputes develop from one side or the other shifting goalposts from an original small disagreement.

One thing about the proposed legislation that I very much agree with is the cessation of union subs being deducted from salaries.

Firstly, it is an imposition on the employee. There is no freedom of decision.

Secondly, it is an imposition on the employer. Why should they give a free service to the union?