STUC leader: Unions will take civil disobedience against Trade Union Bill
The Scottish left took another stride forward on Sunday as the Greens launched the party’s trade union group at their conference in Glasgow.
Speaking at conference following the launch, Grahame Smith, General Secretary of the Scottish Trade Union Congress (STUC), said the union movement has a good relationship with the party – Green representatives don’t cross picket lines, and they have stood up for a real Living Wage, workers’ rights and decent conditions.
There were some strong messages. He said it was time people moved past the ‘jobs vs. environment’ debate and recognised that both can go hand in hand with a just transition. ‘Sustainability is a core workplace issue’.
But what stood out was his ire for the government. Unions are coming under huge attack at the moment. The Conservatives’ Trade Union Reform Bill will drastically effect the right to strike in the UK. The STUC argue it violates a huge range of ILO and UN conventions, with unions forced to reveal plans of posts they will make on social media around the time of any strike, picketers made to wear armbands and the Certification Officer given new powers to clamp down on action and fine unions.
The most damaging reform however is that employers will be able to bring in agency workers to undermine a strike – making workers virtually powerless. ‘The ability to strike is crucial for power in the workplace. Without rights, there can be no fairness in the workplace,’ Smith told members.
Yet it’s a Bill which has no evidence behind it. The Carr Review it was built upon was completely flawed by the government’s own admission, and was abandoned after both unions and employers refused to work with it. Yet it recommended new restrictions on unions’ abilities to picket employers. ‘It’s intimidation for an employer to threaten to close a plant if workers reject a pay offer. Putting an inflatable rat outside a boss’ home is not intimidation’.
Holyrood’s ability to resist the Bill is limited. But it’s limited in part because, during the Smith Commission on Scottish devolution, the Labour Party refused to back devolution of industrial relations – much to the STUC’s ire. ‘The case for devolution of industrial relations is stronger than ever.’
Instead, Westminster will interfere with legitimate local agreements by banning the ‘check off’ system for automatically paying union subs and by clamping down on the time union reps can spend dealing with grievances and doing their duties. What it means is ‘unprecedented government intervention in civil society’. However, there is one positive development – every council in Scotland has pledged to retain the check off system and adequate facility time.
The minimum turnout threshold for strike ballots will have a major impact though. ‘If the government was serious about turnout they’d allow online voting’ – as the Tories did with their recent London mayoral primary. Smith said there was ‘no deal to be done’ on the level of the turnout threshold – ‘they are wrong in practice and in principle’.
How to resist the Bill becomes the next crucial question. The STUC will be taking legal action against the legislation, arguing it contravenes human rights conventions. But in the Q&A, Smith also made another confession – civil disobedience is on the cards. ‘There’s no way I’m wearing an armband on a picket line. If that means breaking the law, so be it.’
It’s a statement that was backed by Greens, judging by the applause – and the fact that on Saturday Greens voted to resist the Trade Union Reform Bill by any means necessary. Green co-convener Patrick Harvie echoed Smith’s comments – ‘Greens should have no quarter with these restrictions’, while PCS Executive Member Cheryl Gedling said ‘if [resisting the Bill] means civil disobedience, we’ll do it.’
Get ready for a wave of illegal strike action if the union Bill passes. After this weekend’s Green party Trade Union Group launch, it looks like from the outset, Scottish Greens will be standing on those law-breaking picket lines. How other parties will respond is, needless to say, less clear.