Voices from the movement: What can the Trade Union Act (2016) tell us about trade union organising?

AuthorPorter, Fenella
PositionANALYSIS - Essay


It is easy to think of the Trade Union Act (2016) as 'Thatcher Round 2': the economic strategy of austerity once again pits the haves against the have-nots, creating the potential for a re-invigorated trade union movement to return to its economically disruptive habits, which the government seeks to constrict. Thus, TUC General Secretary Frances O'Grady condemned the Conservatives for 'refighting the battles of the 1980s' instead of taking a more constructive approach (O'Grady, 2016).

However, while the trade union legislation of the 1980s followed a decade marked by entrenched union disputes, the Trade Union Act (2016) has been introduced against a very different backdrop. The UK currently has historically low levels of industrial action, stagnating levels of union membership and limited areas of union density (DBIS, 2015; Godard, 2011; Dix et al, 2008). Could it be that the Trade Union Act (TUA) has more to tell us about trade union weakness than their strength?

The Act comes at an important moment in the history of the labour movement. The Conservative austerity agenda not only attacks living standards, but reduces union membership through extensive job losses. The significance of this for the movement is exacerbated because the public sector is the most heavily unionised sector. This matters for many reasons, not least because the movement's ability to resist the worst excesses of the austerity agenda rests on its membership and strength. This situation in turn shines a spotlight on what is perhaps the most pressing question facing the movement--the need for a model of unionism which can reach beyond the public sector, and in particular which meets the needs of the ever-growing body of precarious workers.

This article presents the views of thirty-six Trade Union leaders, politicians, paid officials, activists and members, across twelve unions and the TUC, at this critical juncture, on what the TUA reveals about trade unions, their relationship with their members, and their understanding of organising in this new statutory and political environment. Our respondents came from a wide range of unions, including Unite, Unison, GMB, and several small, independent unions such as the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the IWGB (Independent Workers Union of Great Britain). (1) It is noteworthy that there was no significant distinction in the views of activists and officials, therefore we have in general not identified participants by role. Data was gathered from individual interviews and focus group discussions, which were semi-structured, enabling the development of discussion between respondents. The research was carried out in the summer of 2016, as the Bill progressed through the Houses of Parliament.

Participants' responses suggest that the Act could represent a turning point for the union movement: whilst it has revealed weaknesses in trade unions, it arguably also creates opportunities for revitalisation. This article offers a snapshot of views from within the movement. These are certainly not representative, but are, rather, voices for change: activists reflecting on the Act, on the movement itself, and on possibilities for renewal.

Movement responses to the Trade Union Act 2016

When the Trade Union Bill was introduced in July 2015, it included a number of provisions which were deeply concerning to many in the trade union movement, ncluding restrictive ballot thresholds for industrial action, an expiry date on the mandate for action, the removal of DOCAS (or 'check-off'--the payment of subscriptions via payroll), further restrictions on pickets, changes to the certification officer role, and a cap on facilities time. While some of these elements were moderated by the House of Lords, ballot thresholds, longer notice of industrial action, and restrictions on picketing were among the provisions that remained. Many respondents highlighted specific parts of the Act, in particular, ballot thresholds, facilities time, and for some unions, the threat to DOCAS/check-off. However, for all respondents, the most worrying aspect of the TUA is the more general attack on workers' rights, 'a way of shackling and probably suppressing an already beaten down workforce throughout the UK' (FBU, interview, 3/5/16).

Unsurprisingly, all our respondents viewed the TUA as ideological in nature. While some presented the Act as business as usual from a Conservative Party traditionally hostile to the labour movement and emboldened by a recent election victory, others placed it in the context of a wider neoliberal, austerity and privatisation agenda. In this analysis, (some) trade unions were seen as a major barrier by the Government to further privatisation, and a voice against the wider austerity neoliberal agenda. These responses echo the argument that the TUA is the state response to a perceived (and perhaps actual) threat to the dominant narrative and economic model.

In this hostile political environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that the coordinated response of the union movement at leadership level tended towards lobbying rather than organising. Leadership respondents focused on the House of Lords campaign (including the importance of cross-bench support). Connected to this, Diana Holland (Assistant General Secretary, Unite, interview, 7/9/16) emphasised the importance of alliance-building at the campaigning level, with charities and other social justice organisations experiencing the same ideological attack. For Richard Burgon MP, opposition to the Bill had of necessity focused on getting the most pernicious aspects removed (interview, 22/4/16).

This approach was welcomed by some as both realistic (the leadership 'looking after the union [and]... taking issues we care about into the heart of the political process', CWU, interview, 19/4/16), and successful, in raising public awareness of the TUA, and galvanising support amongst MPs and Peers. For others, the response had been inadequate: a 'PR campaign' rather than an activist response (GMB, focus group, 4/6/16), with the TUC 'in panic mode' (PCS, focus group, 4/6/16). FBU respondents, in particular, expressed disappointment that the response was limited to mitigation, rather than outright opposition to the Bill itself (interviews 3/5/16; 18/6/16; focus group 30/6/16). Some CWU and Unison respondents were also critical of the limited planning they saw at the level of their own union leadership (CWU, interview, 26/4/16; Unison, focus group, 4/6/16). Nevertheless, in some unions this critique was also in evidence at leadership level. For Matt Wrack (General Secretary, FBU, interview 18/6/16), the underlying issue is that the TUC needs to reimagine its role. As he put it:


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