The trade union bill

Prospect's general secretary comments on the trade union bill

Influencing the government on its trade union bill is a complex issue; it requires both parliamentary and wider campaigning. Many unions and others have simply signalled blanket opposition to the Bill without thinking through how to change its most damaging aspects.

Members who are not aware of the bill, can see the details by clicking here. 

It would be preferable to defeat the bill in its entirety, so it never becomes law. But as the current government has a parliamentary majority, which seems unlikely to be undermined on this issue, we need to focus on how we can mitigate the negative effects on trade unions, and on our members. We intend to hold the government to account for its views, question the evidence it says justifies its proposals, and fearlessly put the opposing case.

There are several components to the bill. The one most debated in the press is about industrial action ballot turn-outs – essentially, that the law would require over a 50 per cent turnout in a strike ballot for it to be legal (and that there is also, as now, a majority in favour of the action).

Prospect strives and expects to meet that turnout at every ballot we run (regardless of what the government may mandate), to have the strongest possible negotiating position with the employer. That is why we have said to the government we will meet that challenge, because of our last 11 ballots, only two did not meet this threshold.

High ballot turnouts strengthen our negotiating position, give legitimacy and confidence to the members being called on to take strike action, and allow our issues to be aired without the employer questioning the legitimacy of the ballot.

This is why we want unions to take a confident position on this subject, rather than looking defensive. We are confident in our own turnouts. Looking at recent high profile disputes on the railways, we believe other unions should be similarly confident that strike action is only taken when a suitably representative number of members vote for it.

We are proud of having an engaged membership who only take strike action when all other options have been exhausted; that is why this element of the bill does not scare us. We say to employers that Prospect has a preference for evidence-based engagement, but we will be robust if members' interests are being harmed, and we will fight on issues where we know members views are strong. No one will be able to lay the charge at our door that we are unrepresentative.

Focus on the real threats

However there are several other elements of the bill which we oppose strongly. Specifically:

  • a new levy that could makes it more difficult and time-consuming for employers to recognise unions
  • further hurdles on representatives' facility time
  • proposals to repeal the ban on using agency workers to cover the jobs of striking workers.  

We also feel strongly that if there is a minimum turnout threshold, there is no justification for a further voting threshold of 40% in certain ‘important’ sectors and a simple majority should apply.

There are also insidious proposals requiring unions to publish potentially enormous detail about campaign plans, particularly where industrial action is part of the mix. These are plainly intended to hamper to the point of impossibility the voice of working people. It makes you wonder what the government is really planning when such measures are being contemplated.

These are the elements of the bill which we feel are the most potentially destructive for the trade union movement and for our members, and we will continue to fight strongly against their implementation. But to do so we believe we have to engage with all stakeholders. This means members, representatives, political parties and government.

To engage means taking account of the evidence. For example, some public opinion polls, including those commissioned by the TUC, suggest support for the minimum turnout threshold proposal. This may be a reaction to false impressions about the real extent of days lost to industrial action, but it is inadvisable to ignore such opinion just because it does not accord with our views. Your voice is heard more loudly, we believe, where it is informed and effective.

Our agenda

The other damaging aspect of the bill is that it allows the media to dictate the agenda on which trade unions discuss their issues. At least, it does if we react in exactly the way they hope or expect.

We want to take the commentary back to what unions do most of the time - successfully represent members, advocate for good work, and promote our members worth - rather than only talking about what we do occasionally which is take industrial action. This is vital, because otherwise the tremendous work done by representatives and staff is conveniently ignored by the national media.

We need the union voice on:

  • wage share still being stagnant
  • the impact on public services of a further 1% pay cap
  • the pace of work driven by damaging performance management in public and private sectors
  • the lack of legal workplace regulation and
  • good regulation being the basis for solving the productivity issues that bedevil the economy.

And on the positives, such as:

  • our work on diversity in STEM subjects and careers
  • our focus on improving organisational trust
  • our good work agenda, and working with partners on skills and ways of improving performance that are sustainable
  • our contribution to helping employers, companies and organisations prosper because our members have an unparalleled depth of expertise that we can draw on.

We are going to win this agenda back. While we won’t stop campaigning on the bill, we are also going to remind the public just who and what unions are really about.

A personal message to Prospect members

I ask Prospect members to think about sharing this message with those who have yet to join as, in the face of the ongoing challenges, we are always looking to broaden our base of support.

I want members to speak confidently of Prospect as a union that hears their voice. We will not agree on everything all the time – and that can be our strength - but we can agree to honestly and robustly share and debate policy and actions which focus on the best future for members.

I encourage you to speak to your elected representatives if you have questions or concerns, however, I also welcome feedback direct and please feel free to email me on I will respond as soon as I can and welcome all opinions, as we are facing the toughest of tests ahead.