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Thatcher rises from the legal grave

In July I pointed out that a number of right wing groups had put forward proposals for a further tightening the law regarding the trade unions. The employers group, the CBI, had suggested changes to trade union recognition law and a further limitation on our immunity when balloting for industrial action. From the lunatic fringe came the Taxpayers’ Alliance with its proposal to stop the “tax payer subsidy” of trade unions in the public sector, in other words to stop the right of union reps to carry out such trade union duties as representing employees on grievance and disciplinary issues.

As if to prove that there are plenty more Tory policy wonks with pointy heads and mad, staring eyes the Policy Exchange has this weekend published its proposals for trade union law reform, proposals that would make Mrs Thatcher’s seven successive anti-union laws seem quite mild.

The Policy Exchange document Modernising Industrial Relations is a classic example of Orwellian Newspeak. Even the title is in Newspeak because this so-called modernisation would take trade union and industrial relations law back to before the 1906 settlement that gave trade unions some immunity from the employer in law to carry out certain actions in support of their members.

Their document opens with phrases that resonate with what we have been arguing since 1997 and before – that there is a need for a major reform of employment law. However, that is where any common purpose ends, no question here of a new framework of rights and freedoms for unions and workers.

The Policy Exchange put forward a fourteen point plan for reform industrial relations law. Although many of their ideas tighten up existing procedures in favour of the employer – for example, employers allowed to use agency labour when faced with a strike, unions to give fourteen days notice of intended industrial action, and so on – perhaps that most serious is the proposal that there should be an acceptance of no universal right to strike.

Although Thatcher’s laws made the “right” to strike almost impossible to exercise they did not outlaw strike action. To say that there is no such right would effectively emasculate trade unions protecting and advancing their members’ interests and put the UK outside all of its international obligations including the European Social Charter 1962, Article 28 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and case law that has developed around ILO Convention 87.

Policy Exchange also make three further proposals: ending tax payer support for trade unions (back to the Tax Payers’ Alliance); opting into the Political Fund (back to 1927, very modern) and no check off (back to Thatcher).

Clearly the battle lines are being drawn. Among all the arguments about the inequity of the Policy Exchange proposals and the redrawing of employment law even more in favour of the employer a question that needs an answer is how will the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition square their support for the European project when these proposals, if adopted by the Government, would put the UK outside most European social protection legislation.

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