A Trade Union Freedom Bill in Stormont: interview with Gerry Carroll MLA

Gerry Carroll is Northern Ireland Assembly Member (MLA) for Belfast West, and a member of People Before Profit (PBP). He spoke to Free Our Unions about PBP’s “Trade Union Freedom Bill”, which aims to reform legislation in the north of Ireland to make it easier for workers to organise and take action. For more info on the Trade Union Freedom Bill, click here.

Q: What’s the origin of the initiative?

A: We’re trying to proceed through Stormont [Northern Ireland Assembly] with a Private Members’ Bill to scrap restrictive anti-union legislation. Employment law is devolved to Stormont; it’s the only devolved authority which has power over trade union and employment legislation. The Welsh and Scottish governments don’t have this power.

We’re concerned about anti-union legislation and attacks on trade unionists across Britain and Ireland, but we have an opportunity in the north to challenge that legislation. Most of the legislative framework in the north comes from the Northern Ireland Labour Relations Order (1995). The 2016 Trade Union Act which was passed in Westminster doesn’t apply here, but most of the previous anti-union legislation, which mainly stems from the Thatcher governments and was left untouched by Labour governments between 1997-2010, does apply, and we’re trying to change that.

We want to remove the ban on solidarity action, which prevents workers from striking in support of other workers. We think this ban is undemocratic. The ban prevents even workers in the same workplace, in the same building, taking action in support of each other, if they’re employed by different bodies. We see this directly within Stormont itself, where some are employed by the Assembly Commission, and some are employed by the civil service… if civil service workers strike, Assembly Commission staff can’t strike in support of people who are effectively their immediate colleagues and workmates.

We want to remove the requirement for postal ballots in order to sanction official strike action. Unions should be able to decide for themselves what democratic procedure is best for them, including votes and ballots in the workplace itself. Postal ballots are unnecessarily restrictive.

Another aim is to simplify the information unions are required to submit to employers. Currently this process gives employers significant opportunities to challenge strike ballots on the basis of technicalities. We also want to reduce the notice periods required prior to balloting, and prior to taking action. The notice periods are designed to delay workers from taking action.

The Bill also aims to empower workers with greater rights to organise. It would lower the minimum number of union members required in a workplace before recognition can be achieved. Currently it’s 21, which is completely arbitrary. We’d aim to bring that down to five. We also want to expand the issues around which employers have to negotiate with unions, to include issues like contractual arrangements.

Our initiative has been informed by a wide consultation with unions and trade union activists. They feel the current legislation isn’t fit for purpose. It was passed in 1995, before Stormont event sat, and there’s been no public attempt to reform, amend, or rescind this legislation. The pandemic has exposed the fact that workers are put at greater risk by restrictive legislation that slows down their ability to take swift action over workplace issues, and their ability to take action in support of other workers.

Q: Has there been any indication of attempts to make the Tories’ proposed new legislation, further restricting transport workers’ rights to strike, apply in the north once that’s been brought forward in Westminster?

A: Nothing explicit, although they may try. The minister responsible is Diane Dodds of the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party], who may well wish to impose legislation like that, but she has responded to an official question on this to say there are currently no plans to alter trade union legislation. Of course that may change, but there’s nothing in place currently.

Q: What about the ban on political strikes, and the restriction of strikes to so-called “trade disputes” with employers?

A: That’s not a specific immediate focus, but the hope is that lifting the ban on solidarity action would open up the range of issues over which people can strike, by allowing workers to strike in support of other workers.

Q: Where are the next steps for the bill?

A: We’re due to meet the drafters in charge of drafting the legislative language this week. The bill then goes to the Assembly for stage one, although we don’t yet know when that will be. Subsequently there’ll be committee stages, amendment stages, and so on. A lot of the timetable is in the hands of the Assembly’s Business Committee. We hope there won’t be any attempt to scupper the submission and discussion of the bill, but we can’t be 100% confident about that.

We’re absolutely committed to pursuing this as far as we can. There’s been a dearth of discussion about trade unions and workers’ rights through Stormont, in large part because things are set up institutionally to focus on so-called “communal” issues rather than issues of class. Through this process we want to strengthen the wider labour movement and promote the benefits of trade unionism and a strong trade union movement.

The next Assembly elections are due for May 2022, so we’re told there should be enough time in theory to see this process through to completion before then. But at the very least, we’re highlighting the issues, including the democratic issue around the lack of consent people in the north gave to the Thatcherite laws.

Q: What is the culture in the wider labour movement around these issues? Is it something unions are active on? What links have you built with unions through taking this initiative?

A: The picture is mixed. We have had a good response from the labour movement to the initiative – sometimes from unions at a national level, but definitely from branches and hundreds of individual trade unionists. They know the current legislation was designed to slow down and prevent action. At the same time as we’re pursuing our bill, colleagues in the south are pursuing something similar in the Dail. The legislation there is different, but it’s still restrictive.

Q: Through the pandemic, we’ve seen several actions by workers which have tested the limits of the law, and in some cases straightforwardly broken them. Have there been any such struggles in the north?

A: Workers at a meat plant in Moy Park walked out in May due to unsafe conditions. An action like that is obviously of slightly ambiguous legality. Notionally it’s protected by health and safety legislation, but it depends on how those laws are interpreted and enforced. We want a situation where workers are clearly legally empowered to take action to improve their workplace conditions. What actions there have been have tended to be quite scattered. Unfortunately we’ve seen a lot of buy-in into narratives from employers around “all being in it together”.

Q: According to the UK TUC’s figures for union membership, Northern Ireland is comfortably near the top every year. There’s a higher trade union density there than in the south of Ireland. People from both communities in the north are working together every day, they’re members of the same unions. Can that be a source of hope for the north?

A: The Northern Ireland Committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU) represents 215,000 workers in the north, it is a much higher density than the UK average as well as the level in the south of Ireland. Belfast May Day is a bigger event than the Dublin event, and it’s one of the biggest in the UK. A cross-communal trade union movement is definitely a source of hope; even though people return to largely segregated housing and communities, there’s definitely hope in the fact that people are in the same workplaces, universities, and colleges, and in the same unions.

Q: What do you think are the likeliest sources of opposition to your bill?

A: It’ll probably be twofold. There’ll be predictable opposition from the right wing, for example from the DUP. These parties command significant electoral support from working-class people in the communities in which they’re based, but their opposition to reforms like this shows that they don’t at all stand for workers’ interests. It shows them up as the dinosaurs that they are; they’ve participated in the clapping for frontline workers but aren’t interested in legislative changes to give those workers more rights and power.

There may well also be opposition from political elements who say they support the proposals in principle, but think they go too far too quickly, and want to slow things down. There may be proposals of amendments to water down the legislation, which we’ll obviously mobilise to oppose.

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