At the recent TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference, civil service union PCS submitted a motion about electronic balloting for industrial disputes, and rail and transport union RMT added text, with the agreement of PCS, calling for campaigning to repeal all anti-trade union laws (see text at the bottom).
Janine Booth, who was a member of the RMT delegation, explains why this is crucial for the fight for disabled people’s rights.
Britain’s anti-union laws hamper disabled workers in fighting for our rights. They obstruct trade unions’ efforts to win improved pay and conditions for their own members, and they all but bar unions from taking industrial action over wider social and political issues affecting disabled people.
Firstly, the law restricts what we are even allowed to take action over to narrowly-defined ‘trade disputes’. So, workers can lawfully strike for higher pay for ourselves, but the law does not let us strike against benefit sanctions.
We can strike to defend our own jobs, but we can’t strike for a universal right to work or benefits for all, including disabled people.
In 2014, the Tory-LibDem government announced the closure of the Independent Living Fund that provided grants to high-needs disabled people to enable them to live in the community rather than in residential care. No matter how much this affected workers in our personal lives, no matter how strongly we felt about this blatant injustice, the law barred all but those few who worked in running the fund from striking to defend it.
The law allows us only to act ‘selfishly’, and when we do, the Tories and the media denounce us for being selfish!
Secondly, even though we are allowed to strike on these workplace issues, we can do so only after jumping through a great number of hoops that the law sets down.
So, you might have blatant disability discrimination at work, for example a disabled workmate being sacked, or the employer imposing a discriminatory policy. But to take action, the union has to hand over a huge volume of information, give one week’s notice of a ballot, hold a postal ballot, reach a turnout (and sometimes a support) threshold in addition to a majority vote, and give two weeks’ notice before you can even take action.
By the time you have done that, your workmate has been sacked, the policy is in place, and you are fighting a rearguard action.
Employers don’t have to give notice or hold postal ballots before attacking us, and yet we have to do it before defending ourselves.
Thirdly, employers can spend money on political donations and political lobbying – for example, against stronger requirements on them to be accessible to disabled people – without workers having to opt into the product of our labour being spent in this way.
But under the law, we do have to opt into our own trade unions’ political funds to spend money on political lobbying in our interests.
The Tories introduced most of these laws, not (as they claimed) to democratise unions, but in order to neutralise them.
Sadly, when Labour was last in government, it refused to repeal the anti-union laws, and even introduced some new ones. Tony Blair described Britain’s laws as the most restrictive union laws in western Europe, as though that were a good thing.
When Labour is next in government, we want it to repeal all the anti-union laws.
Labour’s leaders say that they will repeal the Trade Union Act. But we don’t just want to go back to 2015. Most of the unjust laws described above were in place before the 2016 Act. We were campaigning against anti-union laws in 2015, and we still need to campaign against them now.
This is why the TUC Disabled Workers’ Conference in May voted unanimously to campaign for the repeal of all anti-union laws, and to urge the Labour Party’s leaders to publicly commit to this policy. It also asked the TUC to co-ordinate a legal challenge by trade unions to the law’s insistence that industrial action ballots be conducted only by post, recognising that this obstructs some disabled union members from voting.
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Motion passed at May 2019 TUC Disabled Workers Conference
16 Trade Union Act (PCS)
Conference believes that the Conservative government’s Trade Union Act 2016 was one of the most undemocratic attacks on the unions, noting that the 50% voting threshold on industrial action ballots was imposed to attack the right to withdraw labour.
Conference is concerned that restricting voting to postal balloting only is both a tool to try and reduce participation, a cynical cost to unions who are industrially organising, but also unfairly impacts those disabled union members whose mobility is restricted due to their impairment. With the closure and relocation of post offices,postal voting becomes even more difficult for some disabled members. Conference believes that expanding legally compliant voting methods to electronic and phone-based balloting would be a reasonable adjustment to allow disabled union members access to participation in their ballots.
Conference notes that government runs a “digital by default” policy but not when it comes to industrial ballots.
Conference calls on the incoming DWC, via Congress and the constituent unions, to gain a legal view to whether lack of alternate voting methods might amount to unfavourable treatment for disabled members and coordinate constituent unions to fund and launch a judicial review of the restricted balloting method for industrial ballots.
Conference further notes that other provisions of the 2016 Act and of pre-existing anti-union laws restrict our rights to fight for disabled workers’ rights, including: bars on ‘political’ and solidarity strikes; restrictions on political funding; and limits on picketing.
We welcome Labour’s policy to scrap all anti-union laws and call on the party to campaign more boldly on this issue.