Theresa May claims that the Conservative Party are the party of working people. Obviously this is total horseshit and this is evidenced by, among many other things, the 2016 Trade Union Act. This Draconian piece of legislation was an unprovoked attack on the largest democratic movement in the country, a movement which works every single day to improve the rights of working people. It appears that the Welsh government also doesn’t believe Theresa May and Assembly Members (AMs) are working to undo the Tory restrictions on workers’ rights. This is an issue that is currently being overshadowed by the Tory attempts to use Brexit as a means to further erode the rights of working people, and they must not be allowed to succeed.
The Welsh Assembly’s cross-party committee on communities, equality and local government has voted to support legislation that would strip out key parts of the Tories’ Trade Union Act. The legislation will overturn the 2016 Act’s restrictions on industrial action in devolved public services like the NHS, the fire service, and schools. As well as removing strike restrictions, namely the 40% turnout threshold for some public sector workers, the Welsh legislation would remove restrictions on union membership dues, which currently allow employers to reduce workers’ facility time.
Of the eight-member committee, 7 AMs- 4 Labour, 2 Plaid Cymru, and 1 UKIP- voted for the bill, and the only vote against was from the committee’s only Tory AM Janet Finch-Saunders. The bill’s general principles will then be voted on in the Assembly before proceeding onto a further committee stage and multiple other votes on the floor of the Assembly. Provided that the spirit of the bill remains the same and the amendments adopted do not substantially change, the bill should be passed as Labour’s 29 AMs and Plaid Cymru’s 10 AMs are likely to vote in favour of the legislation.
However there are implications arising from this bill, chief among which being that Tory Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns has said that any legislation like this will not be legally binding as the Welsh Assembly doesn’t have the authority to pass legislation regarding industrial relations. As well as the obvious political standoff that the passage of the bill bill create, the Welsh Assembly’s defiance of Westminster creates a constitutional question.
The devolution settlement has been asymmetric to say the least. The Scottish Parliament has a list of responsibilities as long as my arm whereas the Welsh Assembly has had to cope with a devolved settlement that has infantilised AMs. The resistance to the Trade Union Act can, and should, be the catalyst for further devolution. If the Welsh government wishes to have a more consensual approach to industrial relations, the Tories in Westminster shouldn’t be able to impose their intolerance of workers’ rights on the people of Wales.
This is where the trade unions come in. The labour movement is already at the forefront of opposition to the Tory restrictions on workers’ rights, however the devolution issue should be included as part of that resistance. If Welsh trade unions agitate for more powers for the Senedd, particularly in the area of industrial relations, restrictive and vindictive laws like the Trade Union Act will be avoided in future.
The Labour Party remains a powerful force in Wales, and Plaid Cymru is also a key player in Cardiff Bay. Having a sympathetic government is key if the movement is to reform and adapt to new challenges. For example, a Tory government would never repeal Thatcher’ trade union restrictions or allow for workplace balloting, but if industrial relations became the responsibility of the Senedd, these restrictions could be lifted. The trade unions have connections in communities up and down Wales to lead industrial action to demand more devolution.
To conclude, the Welsh Assembly are correct to push against the Tories’ unnecessary attack on workers’ rights. There is a bit of lag time before the bill is voted on for a final time, and this should be an opportunity for the Welsh trade union movement to lobby for greater devolution. Creating a mass movement across Wales will force the Tories in Westminster to pay attention to their concerns and to publish the reasons why they haven’t devolved industrial relations to Cardiff Bay. The Labour administration in Cardiff has largely been ignored by Theresa May’s government, but she cannot ignore hundreds and thousands of people across Wales demanding an end to anti-trade union legislation and greater powers for Wales.