PCS Trade Union Bill Briefing - Public and Commercial Services

Trade Union Bill briefing
The Trade Union Bill sets out to further restrict British trade unions, already operating
under the most restrictive laws in western Europe. As we wrote in our parliamentary
briefing to MPs after the Queen’s Speech:
“This Bill is not about increasing democratic legitimacy, but about putting an
undemocratic shackle on workers resisting pay cuts, privatisation and job losses.”
The TUC “unfair, unnecessary and undemocratic”, while the STUC describes the Bill similarly
as “vindictive, unfair and unnecessary”.
The proposals apply to England, Wales and Scotland, but not Northern Ireland, where
employment law is a devolved matter. If passed, it is likely to increase calls for employment
law to be devolved in Scotland – a move backed by the STUC.
The Government has set out 3 consultations on aspects of the Bill, to which PCS will be
responding. These consultations are only for 7 weeks instead of the usual 12 and conclude
in early September.
It is rumoured that the Bill will get its second reading in Parliament in the second week of
September to coincide with TUC Congress.
The key provisions of the Bill are set out below:
Thresholds in ballots
For most PCS members, ballots for industrial action would require a 50% turnout to be
While in many local disputes (e.g. Windsor Castle, National Gallery, etc) we have exceeded
that threshold, in no national dispute have we ever achieved more than 42%. This is not to
say that meeting the 50% threshold would prove impossible – since we have never had to
exceed a threshold before.
We also have a better organising focus both nationally and on the ground in branches due
to the DD sign-up campaign, and so while it may prove a challenge, it would not be
insurmountable – and as part of the Strategic Review we are looking to support better
workplace organisation.
For more information contact PCS’s campaigns team:
Tel: 020 7801 2820, e-mail phyllis@pcs.org.uk
Public and Commercial Services Union
160 Falcon Road, London, SW11 2LN
It is also worth noting that this threshold does not apply to any political election or for
shareholder votes. In fact, the 50% threshold was not reached for the London mayoral
election, the European Parliamentary elections or for most local government elections.
Requiring a threshold for union ballots effectively counts non-votes and no votes.
Additionally, some PCS members (e.g. working at the borders, coastguards, air traffic
control, MoD fire-fighters, highways agency staff) will be subject to an additional threshold
requiring 40% of all members balloted to vote yes (as well as meeting the 50% turnout
threshold). This effectively requires a 64% yes vote on a 64% turnout.
Practically speaking, this may mean balloting over a longer period to ensure that the
thresholds are met.
Putting time limits on ballots
Before unions ballot for industrial action, under the law a trade dispute must be
established, setting out the issues that are in dispute. Unions can continue to take action as
long as the trade dispute remains.
Under the proposals in the Bill, ballot mandates will only extend for four months –
meaning that unions will have to re-ballot members (at huge expense) to continue an
unresolved lawful trade dispute.
There is clearly no case for this other than to put an administrative and financial burden on
unions. It may also encourage employers to string out disputes, knowing that they can
cause the union increased costs.
Shifting power to the employer: Ballot notification and Agency staff
Currently the law states that after the ballot result is announced the union must give the
employer 7 days’ notice of intention to strike. The Bill proposes to double this period to 14
This has two purposes: firstly, it reduces the momentum in a campaign, members may have
voted several weeks before they take action; and secondly it gives the employer even more
time to mitigate the effects of the strike.
To further undermine strike action, the government is also proposing secondary legislation
(separate, not part of the Bill) to allow employers to bring in agency workers to cover the
work of strikers. This strike-breaking activity is currently illegal, but with 14 days’ notice to
prepare, employers will be more likely in some areas to bring in
Criminalising pickets
For more information contact PCS’s campaigns team:
Tel: 020 7801 2820, e-mail phyllis@pcs.org.uk
Public and Commercial Services Union
160 Falcon Road, London, SW11 2LN
Picketing is currently a civil matter and there is currently a code of practice governing
picket lines, which limits participation at six.
The Bill makes picketing rules part of criminal law, potentially criminalising peaceful
picketing, and imposes a statutory duty for a union to appoint a person to supervise every
picket line: who is then subject to criminal law. This picket line supervisor will be required
to carry a letter of authorisation from the union, and be contactable at all times by police.
Failure to comply with any of these restrictions could result in a court injunction being
granted against the strike, and an employer applying for damages.
This measure is dressed up in terms of addressing picket line intimidation (which the Carr
Review was setup to investigate under the coalition government, and found no evidence),
but in reality it is designed to ease the passage of strike-breaking agency labour into
Such a law will also place an increased burden on police resources at a time when police
budgets have been cut.
Attacking Political Funds
Currently union members pay into a political fund unless they opt out. Political Funds
require an all-member ballot to be established (as PCS’s was in 2005) and there is a legal
requirement to re-ballot the full membership every ten years (PCS will be holding this
ballot in the autumn). Members are able to opt-out of the political fund when they join or
at any point during their membership.
The Bill proposes to shift from an opt-out system to an opt-in, whereby each individual
member would have to be signed up. This will put a huge burden on every union to get
members signed up – as the political fund supports vital campaigning activity, such as our
parliamentary group, lobbying in support of our industrial aims, and our anti-fascist
As well as the new opt-in, and the existing requirement for a full membership ballot every
ten years, the Bill requires every member to be asked individually every five years to opt-in
to the political fund. This again is a new financial and administrative burden imposed on
unions to inhibit our ability to campaign politically. It may be that the motivation behind it
is to starve the Labour Party of funding from its union affiliates, but it will hit all unions
with political funds.
Currently the vast majority of PCS members pay into the political fund, but in Northern
Ireland – where the opt-in system has operated due to the different political context, the
opt-in rate is only about 30%.
For more information contact PCS’s campaigns team:
Tel: 020 7801 2820, e-mail phyllis@pcs.org.uk
Public and Commercial Services Union
160 Falcon Road, London, SW11 2LN
We will need a similar campaign to that for DD sign up to enable PCS to continue as an
independent campaigning union.
Cutting facility time
PCS reps have already suffered significant cuts to facility time, and the Bill makes provision
for the government to set a limit on the proportion of time that any public sector worker
can spend on union activities – based on what they did in the civil service under the
coalition government.
As we know, this is an attempt by the government to undermine trade unions, by
restricting the contact between reps and members, and to make the union less effective in
the workplace.
Our Strategic Review looks at how our union can adapt with more activists in branches and
a rep in every workplace, to mitigate the effects of facility time cuts
The Bill also places a burden on public sector employers to report in detail about facility
time arrangements.
Regulating trade unions
Trade unions are currently regulated by the Certification Office, and have to submit an
annual return setting out finances, pay, membership and key officers.
The Bill proposes a considerable extension of these regulatory requirements, and will
compel unions to pay for the cost of administering through a compulsory levy.
One of the requirements is that the union submits an annual report detailing every
industrial dispute, ballot turnout, and every picket line and protest held. Another
requirement is a full report itemising how the political fund has been spent.
If unions are found to have not met the new reporting requirements, then the Bill allows
the CO to impose fines of up to £20,000.
The CO will also have the power to request any union document not covered by legal
privilege and to start investigations of their own volition or on the basis of reports from
third parties (e.g. employers).
Other potential provisions
The government is also consulting on regulating union web and social media activity, and
union-organised protests; and introducing minimum service levels to require unions to
provide minimum cover even when on strike.
For more information contact PCS’s campaigns team:
Tel: 020 7801 2820, e-mail phyllis@pcs.org.uk
Public and Commercial Services Union
160 Falcon Road, London, SW11 2LN
No such stringent proposals have been imposed on trade unions, outside of totalitarian
The government’s case for this Bill is dressed up in the language of greater democratic
mandate – just as the 1980s anti-union laws were too.
As Thatcher’s Chancellor Nigel Lawson confessed in his memoirs, “a reduction in union
power was an important aim of Conservative policy even though it was couched in
language of checking abuse, democratising procedures and so on”.
If the government was serious about increasing ballot turnouts they would support unions
arguing for secure online and workplace balloting.
It was a deceit then and it is a deceit today: this is about driving down the ability of
workers to argue for a pay rise, to defend pensions, save jobs and oppose privatisation.
As trade unions in the UK have been weakened, the share of national income has
decreased, and in recent years workers’ pay has stagnated or fallen in real terms. The
decline of trade union strength has coincided with rising inequality and in-work poverty.
As well as campaigning to oppose this Bill in Parliament, we all have a role to consider and
discuss how we can make our union resilient enough to continue to be an effective
campaigning force if, as is likely, the Bill does pass. This will become a key part of our
Strategic Review considerations, and discussions with other trade unions.
For more information contact Phyllis Opoku-Gyimah phyllis@pcs.org.uk
For more information contact PCS’s campaigns team:
Tel: 020 7801 2820, e-mail phyllis@pcs.org.uk
Public and Commercial Services Union
160 Falcon Road, London, SW11 2LN