Why trade unionists have reason to fear the Lobbying Bill
When I was (a lot) younger and going through college, I worked part time for posh grocers Waitrose. On my first day, the branch manager took me aside for the first and only time he ever bothered to talk to me (he and his deputy were the only people there who had to be addressed as “Mr”, and they mostly stayed off the shop floor). He quite bluntly told me “Just so you understand – we don’t want anyone joining any unions here”.
This surprised me as I’d believed the official line that it was a firm that valued its staff, but I kept my mouth shut and joined in secret. It was an important early lesson for me in where power lies in employment relationships, and why workers need to band together to redress this imbalance.
But looking back 25 years on, I’m not sure what I would have done had I known there was a chance he would find out about my union membership.
I really wanted the job – I’d already been turned down by the (rather better paying) Co-Op up the road and there wasn’t a lot else around. But it left a really sour taste in the mouth. I felt annoyed and belittled that he would try to so blatantly tell me that he knew best what my interests were, and that I wasn’t supposed to complain.
As I’d later find out in other jobs, even an employer that tries hard to be fair to its staff will get things wrong from time to time, to the unfair and unnecessary detriment of staff. And of course many of us aren’t lucky enough even to be in that situation.
Bad employers will take every opportunity to squeeze their staff – the jobs simply aren’t out there at the moment, and employers know it. Most of us will know people forced to the margins by zero hours contracts and poverty wages.
But the lifeline of representation, support and advice that unions offer is now under threat from something I’d not considered at Waitrose back in the late 80s.
For years, employers in construction have been running secret and illegal blacklists of union members who tried to deal with unsafe working conditions in their hazardous industry. We still don’t know how far this went, but it’s had a chilling effect on many people being willing to raise safety issues or be public about union activism.
And now, the government’s new Lobbying Bill is trying to sneak in a clause that would open up the number of people who can look at union membership records, raising worries amongst union members and potential members across all industries. Your personal data could be seen by government agencies and investigators looking into any complaints raised by employers.
If this gets through, what would it do to potential young members, as I was in the late 80s, seeing a need for a union, but unsure of their way in the world of work and scared to join up?
That’s why I’m so concerned about the change. It could cut off activists trying to make bad workplaces better, and lose the new generation even in better workplaces.
Can you please help us to get this issue up the political agenda? The media won’t do it for us, so we need to raise our own voices. We’re starting with an anonymous petition to Andrew Lansley, making the point that whilst union members trust their unions with their personal information, they won’t want it handed to government or employers.