Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The most sustained and partisan attack in a generation

This week is #heartunions week, and we should use it as an opportunity to celebrate some of the great successes trade unions have had and the exceptional work being done by trade union reps and members in workplaces right across the country.

While the Tories often treat trade unions like they are the enemy within, nothing could be further from the truth. Actually an effective trade union movement ensures that partnership at work leads to happier and more productive workplaces.

Trade unions were created by the industrial working class in the 19th century to ensure fair pay and conditions at work. They created the Labour party to ensure they had a voice in parliament and that vital work continues today. Ending child labour, collective bargaining, the working day, weekends, paid holiday, the national minimum wage, ending discrimination in the workplace, and parental leave; these are just some of the successes that can be attributed to organised labour using its political voice in the democratic process.

So why on earth are the Tories so keen to destroy effective trade unionism in the United Kingdom, because, make no mistake, that is what the vindictive trade union bill is designed to do? It goes much further than Margaret Thatcher did; it is the most sustained and partisan attack in a generation. It also has the added advantage of nearly bankrupting the Labour party and silencing the political voice of cleaners, plumbers, healthcare workers, postal workers and taxi drivers up and down our country.

It exposes the Tories as deeply ideological and backward-looking. Judging by the government’s rhetoric you would have thought that the country is riven by industrial strife and union militancy. Nothing could be further from the truth. The level of industrial action is at historic lows and at the current levels of industrial action, the average union member goes on strike for just one day every 15 years. Nobody wants to go on strike; it is and must remain a last resort when all other possible options are exhausted. But the right to take such action is the cornerstone of any democratic society.

This is why Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, the body that represents HR professionals, has called the bill a ‘significant step back’ and a measure that ‘reflect(s) the industrial relations challenges of the 1980s.’ The trade union bill is being driven by ideology, not evidence. The Tories are stuck fighting the battles of the past, rather than dealing with the challenges of today.

The trade union bill shows that the Tories either do not understand or do not care about the real role trade unions play in the workplace. The Tories claim to want a high pay and low welfare economy, so they should welcome the role trade unions can play in both driving up productivity and securing a fairer share for working people. Instead they attack them and produce a bill which will smother them in £35m of red tape in the next five years.

The Tories say they want to tackle the skills gap and help everyone get on at work, so they should also welcome the work of union learning reps in workplaces up and down the country helping employees develop their skills. Workplaces with a trade union presence tend to be safer and have fewer disputes.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the Tories do not understand the trade union movement. They never have. But the bill also shows the Tories are worryingly out of touch with employers on this agenda.

The Engineering Employers Federation have warned of the ‘potential to undermine the constructive relations that currently exist between trade unions and many employers in the private sector.’ The CIPD has said that its members generally have good relations with trade unions and have called for a more consensual approach based on partnership. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation has expressed serious reservations on the part of employment agencies about the prospect of temporary workers covering for striking employees.

Employers do not want the government to waste time indulging its own ideological obsessions and fighting the vindictive and partisan battles of the past. Instead, they want government to show real leadership, and to tackle the advancing structural economic weakness our economy faces. They want an industrial strategy, with a government working alongside employers, employees, and indeed their trade unions, willing to help shape markets, not just fix them, and helping build the foundations for economic success.

I am in no doubt that our country succeeds only when government, employers and employees work in partnership to tackle the challenges we face.

Trade unions are a partner in the pursuit of a modern and forward-looking market economy, working to promote long-term growth and profitability; to make sure profits and power are shared more fairly; and to spread ownership and enterprise.

Sadly, though, we have a business secretary so hidebound by laissez-faire dogma that he is cynically treating trade union reps and members as the enemy within. This from someone who cannot even let the words ‘industrial strategy’ pass his lips.

There is no need for this bill, and there is no demand for it. Forcing it through will hurt working people and frustrate the government’s own avowed aims of creating a high pay, high skill and high productivity economy.

At the beginning of this #heartunions week, it is time the Tories treated trade unions, their reps and members, as equals; not as an afterthought, or, worse still, as an inferior, because workers and our world-leading businesses and industries will suffer as a consequence.

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Angela Eagle MP is shadow secretary of state for business and shadow first secretary of state. She tweets @AngelaEagle

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Angela Eagle MP

is MP for Wallasey

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