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Trade Union Act 1984


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The Right Honourable Tom King, Secretary of State for Employment


Mr Speaker,


I beg to move, that this Bill be read a second time.


This Bill continues the Government’s step-by-step approach to trade union reform. In the 1980 Act we tackled the problems of abuse of the closed shop and the picket line. In the 1982 Act removed the immunity of trade unions which organised unlawful industrial action and made all closed shops subject to the test of a ballot. The Bill is concerned to establish a proper relationship between trade unions and their members and particularly to ensure that members in unions have a real say in the two key areas of who shall lead them and whether they take industrial action. This latest step is not one which we have taken lightly or hastily. We have always made it clear that our preference was for voluntary reform of trade unions.


In the 1980 Act we made public money available to finance postal ballots both for elections and for strikes and industrial action. In 1981, within a month of taking office, my predecessor, now Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, made a public offer to help the trade unions in any way that they might suggest to reform their constitutions and procedures. Both offers have been ignored by the trade union movement, consciously and deliberately.


It is still the case that most union leaders are elected by votes cast, often by a show of hands, at branch meetings held away from the workplace, despite all the evidence that branch meetings on average are attended only rarely by more than 7 per cent. of members.


It is still the case that only two major TUC unions have adopted fully postal ballots for the election of their leaders/


It is still the case that most unions refuse to hold secret ballots before strikes and rely on rowdy open-air meetings which are a travesty of democracy.


All this occurred despite the fact that the 1980 Act removed the objection of cost which has always been the trade unions' main argument against secret ballots.


This Bill contains nothing that has not already been done by one union or another. That applies to secret ballots for union leadership, for strikes and even for political funds. If some trade unions can follow proper democratic procedures, why should they not all do so?


Part I of the Bill concerns elections, part II strike ballots and part III the political activities of trade unions.


Part I provides that all the voting members of the governing body of a trade union must be elected by a secret ballot of the members. The ballot must be secret and every member entitled to vote must have an opportunity to do so at the time and place convenient to him and without having to incur direct personal cost.


Part II concerns strike ballots. In effect, it gives trade unions a choice. They may ballot their members before calling them out on strike and keep the immunity that the law allows, or they may call a strike without a ballot and forfeit their immunity. It is a simple proposition and an entirely fair one.


Part III of the Bill deals with the rights of trade union members in trade unions which engage in political activities. There is nothing in the Bill to prevent a union from continuing to engage in political activity if that is the wish of the majority of its members.


The Bill fulfils the undertaking that we gave to the country in our election manifesto. We fought and won that election on a promise to give the unions back to their members. That is the fact which the TUC cannot afford to forget, which some of the more extreme leaders of less democratic unions would dearly like to forget, but which the Government will never forget. Poll after poll has shown that these proposals have the support of the overwhelming majority of the British people and the majority of trade unionists. I commend it to this House.





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John Smith, Shadow Secretary of State for Employment


I thank the Secretary of State for comments. 

The Secretary of State did not give us much detail. Indeed, he skipped through the Bill rather quickly. I hope that we shall examine it much more carefully than the Secretary of State wants us to. The Bill is an irrelevant effrontery by the Conservative party. Conservatives, of all people, want to lecture the British trade union movement on the principles and practice of democracy.

As recently as 1963, the late lain Macleod was moved to describe the processes by which a Conservative Prime Minister was appointed to the highest political office in the land as more akin to the enstoolment of an African tribal chief than to the processes of modern political democracy. It is a party in the internal processes of which, as witnessed by the sickeningly deferential annual conferences, democracy is only occasionally glimpsed and yet it has the patronising temerity to use the power of the state to impose on our trade unions the Conservative party's ideas of how they should be run internally. Moreover, all that is in respect of trade unions which were born in democracy, nurtured and developed by it and practise it almost every day.

The Bill also restricts further the power of trade unions to defend and advance their members' interests by imposing an arbitrary and inflexible ballot which, in practice, amounts to a compulsory pre-strike ballot before there is any official withdrawal of labour under pain of losing the legal safeguards which alone would render that action possible.

The Bill produces the ludicrous circumstances in which members of a trade union who take part in an unofficial strike will have legal immunity from civil action if they are acting in a trade dispute while a trade union which acts officially will lose immunity completely if a ballot as prescribed by the Bill is not held. The processes of the inflexible ballot will encourage unofficial action more widely than ever before as industrial relations experts and intelligent employers know well.

Thirdly, in an act of mean-minded political spite, the Conservative party wants to restrict the operation of political funds of trade unions so much that it hopes to undermine the Labour party financially, thereby making it more difficult for Labour to carry out its constitutional function as Her Majesty's loyal Opposition. All this, while money is encouraged to flow—without let or hindrance or murmur of statutory control — from the coffers of corporate and private sector industry towards the Conservative party. 

During the election campaign the Prime Minister said that trade unions should not be a fourth estate of the realm. TShe preferred the role of trade unions to be limited to the workplace or enterprise. She felt that the connection between the Labour party and the unions was wrong. I am quoting her words almost exactly. In other words, unions should be regarded as having a diminished, minor and non-political role.

This Bill is an attempt to put the Prime Minister's views into practice and into the laws of the land. It is a blatant attempt by the Government to use the power of Parliament to alter the balance of power in the state to the advantage of the Government of the day.

Because the Bill will do serious damage to both industrial relations and political fairness, we shall not only fight it with vigour and determination but, when we come to power as we will, we shall repeal it and replace it with legislation that reinstates the principles that this Government seek to abandon.













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Mr Speaker,

The purpose of this legislation is clear, as it has been with the government’s previous legislation relating to Trade Unions, to neuter them as both a political and economic force. Monetarists like the Prime Minister, we all know, see unions as disrupting the normal functioning of the market. That we can agree on, but whilst the Prime Minister sees that as a negative, I see it as an absolute necessity, because the market seeks to exploit the value of the labour that the worker provides. The union provides an essential check to the homogeneous power of the employer over the worker. It is in the employers' interest to lower wages, lowering average costs and increasing their profit, but that is not in the interest of working people in Britain. But furthermore, this is another step in the petty revenge of the Conservative Party against the unions for contributing to the fall of their last government a decade ago. Those on the opposite benches, Mr Speaker, think the working class have too much power thanks to the Trade Unions, this government’s class interest is directly contrary to that of the working class across Britain, and the government is seeking to use its power now to diminish the greatest tool of the working class to represent their interests.

This government, therefore, have a contempt for the unions and, by extension, a contempt for the working class in Britain. With the deindustrialisation of Britain, we see a contempt for skill. High unemployment shows contempt for the economic security of the working class. Now we see something in Britain which has been alien to us since the great reforming government of Clement Attlee, we see homelessness. We see people sleeping rough on the streets due to the callous and neglectful nature of this government. We see more working class people pushed into poverty and widening inequality, and the last line of defence against the despicable actions of this government against working class people in this country is the Trade Union movement, and that is what the Conservative Party cannot stand.

Unions, as I have outlined and we all understand, increase the wages of the working people in this country through their collective power, benefiting even those who are not unionised as their wages go up with that of the unionised workers. The government want to stunt the wage growth of working people whilst speculators in the city fatten their wallets because it is in the interest of the government to benefit the very wealthy donors who give to their party. So whilst the government mismanage the economy with unemployment at almost 12% and attack the working class interests of Britain, they are actually playing a tactic indirect political play. The government’s backers are those individuals who are independently wealthy, meanwhile, the Labour Party is the political wing of the Trade Union movement and, as a result, mostly funded by the Trade Unions, funded by the working class. My right honourable friend the Shadow Secretary of State for Employment is absolutely right to recognise that this is a deliberate attempt to undermine the functioning of the opposition and completely transform the balance of power in both society, from the many to the few, but also in politics from that of the collective to that of the wealthy individual. This government is seeking to remove unions from the political arena and diminish the only effective opposition to the Conservative Party since the Liberals split at the 1922 election.

Whilst on the topic of the politics of the early years of this century, this government are effectively bringing back the initial judgement of the Taff Vale case through their effective ban on strikes without a ballot, diminishing the rights of workers to withdraw their labour in Britain, a right that should be protected at all costs, which my right honourable friend the member for Monklands East correctly points out also leads to an unofficial strike having more legal protections from civil action than an official strike where a ballot is not held prior. I know that the government are ‘conservatives’, but this is not conservation, this is completely backwards.

Mr Speaker, I will continue to work to vigorously oppose this government and fight for the interests of my class, the working class, against this government siding with the wealthy few over the majority of our society, and I extend my full solidarity to my friends and comrades in the Trade Union movement fighting to better the conditions of the working class. I urge all members of this house to oppose this bill.

James McCluskey- Labour Member of Parliament

Member of Parliament, Liverpool Riverside (1983-Present)
Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (1986-)
Shadow Secretary of State for Employment, Trade & Industry (1986-)

Member of Parliament, Liverpool Scotland Exchange (1974-83)
Minister for Industry (1974-75)
Minister for Environment (1975-76)
Minister for Energy (1976-79)
Shadow Secretary of State for Industry (1980-81)

Member of Parliament, Liverpool Exchange (1970-74)

Liverpool City Council, Dingle Ward (1959-68)

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