The Tories’ Latest Crackdown on Trade Unions

Later today, a committee will vote on new anti-union measures including levies and severe fines – it’s part of the government’s campaign to deter workers from organising amid the cost of living crisis.

Trade unions face another fight against government measures designed to impede their activities. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

At the very moment that workers are facing a huge pay squeeze, ministers are setting out to weaken their bargaining power with a renewed attack on trade unions.

Today, MPs will debate and vote on proposals to impose a levy on unions and allow five-figure fines for breaching complex trade union laws. That’s money from the pockets of care workers, nurses and supermarket staff.  

MPs will also discuss giving the Certification Officer—who handles complaints about unions—the ability to impose huge fines and demand sensitive documents.

This is happening at a time when the pandemic continues to put a strain on frontline workers in schools, hospitals, shops, public transport, and the services we all rely on. Millions have turned to unions to protect their jobs, defend their rights, and keep their workplaces safe, and unions have worked tirelessly to support them.

At a time when families across the country are feeling the pinch, valuable union time and money will be diverted, as unions are forced to jump through yet more hoops. Now is the time to be working with unions, not against them.

What’s Happening with Pay?

As rising prices eclipse wage growth, real pay is dropping. The latest data shows that in November 2021, real pay fell by 1.5 percent on the year.

This means real pay has fallen back below 2008 levels, with average weekly earnings £3 lower than they were before the financial crisis, according to the CPI. If we use the RPI measure of inflation, which is a better measure of tracking living costs, real pay is down by £60 per week compared to its peak in 2009.

This reflects an era of pay stagnation longer than any we’ve seen in centuries. Previous TUC analysis has found that in the twelve years between 2009 and 2021, real weekly pay didn’t grow at all. In the twelve years prior to 2009, it grew by 24 percent (£96p/w).

Despite the prime minister’s promises of a high wage economy, the future doesn’t look much better. The Office of Budget Responsibility forecasts real wages to barely grow over the coming years. Given that inflation is already rising quicker than the OBR forecasted, even this stagnant wage growth now looks optimistic.

Attacks on Unions Won’t Help

What has been the response of the party that has promised a ‘high wage, high skill’ economy? Rather than help workers raise their pay, ministers have returned to their union-bashing comfort blanket.

The Trade Union Act 2016 has already done much to damage workers’ power with additional restrictions on industrial action and picketing, but for the last six years, several measures have remained unactivated. Now, Tory ministers have dusted off a series of these unnecessary and abandoned legacy measures.

These include a levy on trade unions that will hand the Treasury more than £1 million of workers’ money. And it will open up complaints about unions to people who aren’t members of the union in question—including employers, hostile anti-union groups, or inconvenienced members of the public. The powers available to the certification officer to demand sensitive union documents will increase, and they will be able to levy fines of up to £20,000 for breaches of complex union rules.

There is no need for these reforms. Unions are democratic organisations accountable to their members with a strong track record in meeting their duties. In the last financial year just thirty-four complaints were made to the Certification Officer, and she didn’t have to make a single enforcement order.

Collective Bargaining Improves Pay

We know that an attack on unions is an attack on workers’ pay.

We have seen evidence of the deals that strong, effective unions can win in recent months. These include Unite securing a 13 percent hike at Mercedes Benz, Usdaw achieving a £10 minimum wage at Sainsbury’s and Argos, and GMB winning an 11 percent pay rise for refuse collectors in Eastbourne.

These examples are backed up by the data. Staff at workplaces where unions were recognised for collective bargaining are paid 5.3 percent more than staff at comparable workplaces where collective bargaining is not recognised. The OECD has found that there’s a wage premium for those covered by collective bargaining, and that collective bargaining reduces wage inequality.

Despite the clear benefits, collective bargaining coverage is in decline, falling from over 80 percent in 1979 to 26 percent today, thanks to hostile laws and economic changes.

If you weaken unions’ ability to secure union recognition and the right to negotiate pay with employers, then you weaken workers’ power.

Instead of attacking unions with more red tape, the government should be giving unions stronger powers and better access to workplaces so they can do what they do best: drive up wages and conditions.

Fair pay deals need to be implemented in whole industries, negotiated with unions, and designed to get pay and productivity rising in every sector. This—not union bashing—will help deliver a high wage, high skill economy.