#KillTheBill – An open letter to @mikejwood MP

This week we reach the 3rd reading of the Trade Union Bill, the tory legislation designed to paralyse union action through amongst other measures raising turnout thresholds and vote share needed for ballots to above that achieved by many elected figures, and legalising strike breaking agency staff.  This morning I received an email justifying this legislation from Mike Wood, MP for Dudley South. I’m putting my response to this followed by his email below.

Dear Mike

Thank you for your response. However I believe a number of your points are misguided and lack a rational basis.

In your first paragraph you state:

"It is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hardworking taxpayers who rely on key public services."

Preventing unions from taking action to protect the staffing and funding of vital public services runs completely against your apparent desire to protect service users. While it is inconvenient in the short term to have access to public services disrupted by strikes, the wholesale attack on public services from the current and previous government is leaving dangerous holes in provision, from the understaffed hospital wards to the women turned away from DV refuges to the fire stations closed down. This is serious long term life risking damage and there is no substitute arrangement as happens in the case of strikes involving front line workers.

In your second paragraph you state: "It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for; causing misery for millions of people and harming our economy too."

As I already stated, it is short termism to focus on the inconvenience of strike day disruption whilst being blinded to the rampant selfish destruction of workers lives in the interest of a neo-liberal business model which has been allowed to flourish for too long. From the worker on a zero hours contract frightened of never getting a call again to the union rep trying to ballot whilst standing in the shoes of the last victimised branch secretary to the woman who needs overtime this month to pay for her daughter's birthday and is frightened to be seen on a picket, there are all sorts of barriers in hostile work places which hit turnout, and these barriers will be strengthened by a further attack on unions, not removed.

But as you've mentioned the issue of turnout, let's have a quick look at Dudley South. Your bill would see trades unions needing 40% of the total possible vote to get a democratic mandate. I had a look at the stats for May. It looks like your share of the total possible vote was 27.7%. 

Now as you have pointed out, a ballot is a yes no vote and a parliamentary election is technically a selection from a range of candidates although we currently effectively have a 2 party system.

You go on to comment that "strikes affect everyone". This is a bit of a sweeping generalisation in the spirit it was intended - while a national fire-fighter strike (like the ones we've had over your party trying to force our firefighters to retire later so that they can be declared medically unfit and be sacked under capability rather than gathering the pension you would thinks someone risking their life for the public for years might be entitled to) is going to impact nationally, local strikes are very specific to the areas they take place in. However, strikes do affect everyone, in that without union action we all see our working conditions and pay eroded. Which I guess is useful for an employers party.

On the matter of picket line intimidation - I will be sure to pass on your concerns about menacing behaviour to the local pensioners who support our pickets come rain or shine after years of taking part in action themselves. When my kids were toddlers they used to join me on the picket as well so I may be inadvertently guilty too - nothing says militant presence quite like a 2 year old who wants to show you her peppa pig wellies.

Facility time is as I am sure you are aware largely used to smooth industrial relations in terms of individual casework. My own facility time exists in principal but not practice given the workload in my sector (FE) but the case work I carry out on an individual basis is something which rationalises rather than disrupts how our college functions. 

There is no logical reason to allow temps to strike break other than to break strikes. I take that to be your point when you talk about allowing businesses to keep functioning (i.e. rendering strikes useless).

There is a real danger to the British public in allowing a further attack on trades union rights. While strike disruption is inconvenient, lives will be far more difficult as the result of further weakening of union action.

My union will be out next Tuesday in a fight for pay, which takes place as part of the complete failure to adequately fund FE. It would be great to have a chat with you on the picket where you can meet with the hard working trades unionists your party is determined to get rid of.

Thank you again for taking the time to respond.

Rhiannon Lockley

Dear Ms. Lockley

Thank you for contacting me about strike laws.

Trade unions are valuable institutions in British society and dedicated trade unionists have a strong history of working hard to represent their members, campaigning for improved safety at work and giving support to their members when it’s needed. But it is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hardworking taxpayers who rely on key public services.

It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for; causing misery for millions of people and harming our economy too.

I am glad the Government will rebalance the interest of employers, employees, the public and the rights of trade unions by introducing a 50 per cent voting threshold for union ballot turnouts. The requirement for there to be a simple majority of votes in favour would remain.

To tackle the disproportionate impact of strikes in essential public services such as health, education, fire and transport, a requirement will be introduced in addition to the 50 per cent minimum voting turnout so that 40 per cent of those entitled to vote must vote in favour of industrial action for it to take place. Action will also be taken to ensure strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballots conducted years before.

The Government will also introduce a transparent opt-in process for union subscriptions to political funds. Political donations should always be voluntary and this will help ensure that is the case.

Voting to take part in strike action and voting in a General Election are two completely different votes. MPs are elected from a range of candidates whereas a strike is a yes or no ballot. Strikes affect everyone, but only union members can vote and I think it is fair they should have decent turnouts.

I can assure you that this Bill is not an attempt to ban industrial action. It will, however, make the key provisions of the Picketing Code legally binding and make trade unions more accountable for the conduct on picket lines to tackle the problem of intimidation of non-striking workers. The Government is not proposing to introduce new measures that are not already in the Picketing Code and most unions have followed this Code without difficulty for many years.

Nor does the Bill propose to stop “Facility Time”, or time spent by an organisation’s staff on trade union duties and activities during working hours. It will, however, ensure greater transparency by extending the requirements to publish information on the time and money spent on facility time that currently apply to the Civil Service and to the wider public sector. I believe it is right that the Government monitor the practice to ensure it is a sensible use of taxpayers’ money and this will ensure levels of facility time remain appropriate.

I can confirm that the practice of state-run trade union subscriptions, or the “check off” process, is to be ended, removing the taxpayer-funded administrative burden on employers. I believe there is no reason, however, why a trade union with a good relationship with their members would lose out by asking them to pay by direct debit.

On a final note, there are sectors in which industrial action has a wider impact on members of the public that I believe is disproportionate and unfair. Allowing agency workers to cover striking workers will ensure that businesses can continue to operate to some extent. As you may be aware, the Government is seeking views from a wide range of stakeholders and I am assured all consultation responses will be considered in the context of wider industrial relations legislation and interests.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me.

Yours sincerely

Mike Wood
Member of Parliament for Dudley South

One comment

  1. chriswaynepoetry

    Interesting post. His statement in his reply to your letter “It is only fair that the rights of unions are balanced with the rights of hardworking taxpayers who rely on key public services.” is not only just thinking in the short term, but erroneous as well. These strikes are not just about employees having humane working conditions and pensions which they should be entitled to, it is also about these working conditions benefiting the people who access these services. For instance, it can be said that a firefighter will be physically fitter and more capable to rescuing someone at age 55 (current retirement age) than at age 60 (proposed retirement age increase). Another example is the increase in likelihood of been misdiagnosed from junior doctors, due to an increase in their contacted hours making them more tired.

    The idea that agency staff can be used ti fill in the gaps of workers while they strike presents two problems as I can see. Firstly, some services require continuous contact (such as junior doctors and their patients) which agency staff can not really provide. Secondly, this point is exemplified by the section in his letter which states: “It is wrong that politicised union leaders can hold the country to ransom with demands that only a small percentage of their members voted for; causing misery for millions of people and harming our economy too.”, due to agency staff in a lot of cases costing more per hour than permanent staff.

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