When the government’s Trade Union Bill was being debated in parliament yesterday, one could be forgiven for thinking that none of the Labour speakers had taken the time to listen to those objecting before them. Most complaints consisted of the same two ingredients: hyperbolic outrage that the government has the temerity to launch such an egregious assault on workers’ rights, and some variation on the idea that the Conservatives didn’t reach the voting threshold in May that they now plan on imposing on trade union strike votes. The Labour case, in summary, consisted of equal parts fallacy and irrelevance.
The habit that those on the Left have fallen into of equating union strikes with General Elections is worrying - these are supposedly intelligent people, after all. The two are chalk and cheese. As I’ve written before: one is a binary vote to take extraordinary action designed to be as disruptive to the general public as possible; the other is a multiple-option choice that exists to maintain the status quo. Completely different, and to apply the parameters of one in order to discredit the other is unsound in both fact and reasoning. The simple fact is that strikes are an abnormal action, have a negative effect on countless citizens who have no role in the employer/employee dispute, and therefore must be subject to a higher voting threshold.
The question of whether the Trade Union Bill is actually an assault on workers’ rights is the key dispute here, though. If you had turned over to BBC Parliament yesterday afternoon (presumably in error or boredom) you would be forgiven for thinking that the Tories were preparing to abolish the unions, legalise child labour, and hang anyone who stood in their way, such were the histrionic reactions from Labour and the SNP. Given the rather large union cheques that fund a lot of the dissident MPs, it was a predictable performance. The opposition to this bill are adamant that it crushes workers’ rights. Let’s consider that, then. Firstly, it crushes no rights whatsoever: the Tories are doing nothing to abolish unions or punish their members, they are simply requiring a higher turnout from membership for a ballot enabling strike action. They also plan on making political contributions an opt-in measure for union members - a course of action that would no doubt hurt the Labour coffers in the long run, explaining their ire.
If they would like to debate workers’ rights though, consider the following. Only a small percentage of the British workforce belongs to a trade union. The rest get by without the guaranteed pay rises or heightened job security that unionisation affords. So when the NUT strike, it is the working single mothers who suffer, having to take time off work as their children have no school to go to. When the RMT order yet another tube strike, it is the minimum wage workers of London that are most affected, missing out on shifts because they physically can't get to work. These strikes don't hurt the much-maligned bankers and millionaires. They do, however, cause serious problems for the working class, the same people that Labour claim to represent. These people deserve the reassurance that the disruption to their lives at least carries the support of a reasonable amount of union members, not just the fat cat bosses and their cronies. The standard union line is that striking is a last resort: unfortunately that is normally delivered by a McCluskey or a Serwotka while they struggle to suppress their own laughter. Striking has become a bargaining chip to these bloated narcissists - it is absolutely no longer a last resort.
The Labour Party has been resolutely drumming out the fact that nearly 300,000 people have signed their petition against the Trade Union Bill. As pointed out by the writer Toby Young, that’s nothing compared to the 11 million plus who voted for a Conservative manifesto in May that clearly outlined this policy. If Labour truly want to support the rights of workers across the country, they will stop kowtowing to their union paymasters and start listening to the normal working people, whole swathes of whom voted for the Tories in May. They won’t though, and we can look forward to plenty more sycophantic defences of the union bully boys as this bill progresses.