Barnsley is a town built on coal and, because of that, trade unions have always had deep roots in our community.
Many of the people I know in Barnsley have vivid memories of the miners’ strike and still feel its impact today.
Some were members of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM); others remember showing solidarity via their own trade unions – through donations and fundraising. The trade union family pulled together and looked after its brothers and sisters who were in need.
Nowadays you are more likely to hear from other unions in our town – whether it’s BAFAWU representing workers in the baking industry, or UNISON representing public servants in local government, health and education; or Unite and GMB representing those across both private and public sectors. And soon I will again be meeting with representatives from the National Union of Teachers, to hear about the impact of government reform on their work.
The benefits to people of trade unions are numerous: not only can they help you when you have a problem at work but they also provide support for learning and training, financial assistance in times of need and access to legal advice on more than just employment issues.
There are great advantages to businesses too. Having one union rep to talk to instead of 1,000 employees is practical and efficient. A good union rep is in touch regularly with his or her members, raising not just their concerns, but also their ideas for improving the business.
However, like the Thatcher government before them, this current Tory government is set on smashing the unions. They are pushing through legislation that will greatly weaken trade unions and puts to bed any notion that this Government is acting for working people across the UK.
They say they are interested in modernisation, boosting union democracy and increasing transparency. But every measure in the Bill is designed to frustrate democratic decision-making by trade unions, at the same time refusing to introduce e-balloting and secure workplace balloting.
It is also part of the Tories’ wider plan to stitch up the democratic process in the UK for a generation.
The Bill will greatly limit how much unions can donate to the Labour Party – ignoring the fact that the unions were joint founders of our party – whilst still allowing big business to donate to the Tory party. At the same time, the Tories have changed voting registration rules, meaning many working class people have fallen off the electoral register; they have cut the amount of funding to opposition parties in Parliament; and they are bringing forward changes to constituency boundaries which will reduce the number of opposition MPs in Parliament – along with rules about ‘English votes for English laws’ which give them a much increased majority on issues being voted on in Parliament.
Last week even some Conservative MPs voiced their concern about how the Trade Union Bill will affect democracy in our country. Surely that is a sign that the Government has gone too far?
Along with my colleagues, I will continue fighting against this divisive and vindictive Bill. But, whatever the Conservatives throw at us, I know that in a place like Barnsley trade unions will never disappear. They are part of our community and, with or without supportive laws, they will continue to make a positive difference to the lives of our people.
This article was first published in the Barnsley Chronicle on 19 February 2016.