How anti-union laws harm the fight for disabled people’s rights

By Janine Booth, Secretary, RMT Disabled Members’ Advisory Committee

Britain’s anti-trade-union legislation makes it harder for unions to fight for the rights of disabled workers and disabled people more generally. How?


Limiting issues on which unions may lawfully take action

Trade unions may take lawful industrial action only in pursuit of ‘bona fide trade disputes’.

So, unions may strike to defend their members’ jobs, but not for the right to work or benefits for all, including disabled people.

Trade unions are allowed to strike for higher pay for their own members, but not against benefit sanctions against disabled claimants.

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 trade unions only to act ‘selfishly’, and then when they do, the Tories and the media denounce them for being selfish!


Jumping through hoops

The law allows trade unions to call industrial action on these workplace issues, but only after following an onerous list of procedural requirements.

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, you have to hold a postal ballot, give two lots of notice (one of one week, one of two weeks) and hand over a huge volume of information before you can even take action.

If the union makes any errors during this process – even minor ones – then the employer may ask the court to ‘injunct’ the industrial action ie. to order it not to take place until a full hearing can take place.

And even if the union follows the procedure flawlessly, by the time it has done so, your workmate’s been sacked, the policy is in place, and you are fighting a rearguard action.

By contrast, employers don’t have to give notice or hold postal ballots before attacking the workers’ rights or conditions.


Draining the political fund

Similarly, employers may 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 in to the product of our labour being spent in this way.

But under the law, we do have to opt in to our own trade unions’ political funds to spend money on political lobbying in the interests of union members and working-class people more generally. The requirement for trade unions to hold separate funds for political campaigning and representation came in an anti-union law passed over a century ago. Unions may only pay for campaigning – for example for stronger laws against disability discrimination – from this fund.

Further legislation weakened these funds by allowing members to opt out of them, then in 2016, the Tory government’s Trade Union Act changed this to a requirement to opt in, so that a union member has to positively assent to make their (very small) contribution to the fund. It is easy to miss this opt-in when signing up to a union. This was a deliberate move by the Tories to limit the resources available to trade unions to campaign against discriminatory and anti-union government policies.


Only by post

The law requires industrial action (and union election) ballots to be conducted solely by post. Despite having a ‘digital by default’ policy for itself, the government will not allow trade unions to use modern technology to enable their members to vote more easily or to take votes in the workplace.

This presents a barrier to some disabled people, particularly those with impairments that making it more difficult to receive, fill in by hand and post a ballot form.

While insisting on an antiquated voting method that reduces turnout, the law now requires industrial action ballot to reach a turnout threshold!

It does not apply this to other areas of political and civil life. In fact, many of the MPs who voted for this legislation would not even be in Parliament if these thresholds had applied to their elections.


Yet more restrictions

Law after law has restricted various aspects of effective trade unionism, for example picketing, and intensified state regulation of trade union affairs.

The Tories introduced most of these laws, not to democratise unions, as they claimed, but in order to shackle and neutralise trade unions.


More to come

The next anti-union law on the Tories’ agenda is to require a minimum service to run during rail and transport strikes. So, even if the union has a bona fide trade dispute, meets all the requirements, and the ballot passes all the thresholds, it will still not be allowed to call an all-out strike. The law will require the union to collaborate in minimising the effect of its own action.

This plan was among the Conservative Party’s pledges in the 2019 general election, and while it has not pursued it so far, we expect that when the pandemic passes its peak, it will bring this unfair and repressive proposal forward. We also expect that it will promote the new law by referring to the rights of passengers, including disabled passengers. This is appalling hypocrisy from a Tory government with a record of systematic attacks on disabled people, and a cynical use of disabled people as a pretext to restrict the right to strike. Contrary to Tory claims, it is in the interests of disabled people to defend the right to strike, and to reject attempts to divide transport workers and passengers against each other.

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