Labour Research June 2017


Hammering the unions, the workers and the poor

Ahead of this month’s general election, Labour Research looks at the damage the Tories have inflicted on unions, and on both working and non-working people over the last two years.

The Tory government may have won the 2015 general election with a slim majority. But this didn’t deter them from making clear their hatred of trade unions when they presented the Trade Union Bill to Parliament in July 2015 soon after taking office. 

This targeted the organisation, funding and political power of unions, particularly those organising in the public sector. And it coincided with government plans for further attacks on the pay and conditions of public service workers. 

A huge campaign succeeded in delaying, diluting and defeating a number of the proposals. But the Bill gained Royal Assent last year and some of its key provisions came into effect earlier this year. These included new and higher thresholds for turnout and voting in strike ballots and restrictions on picketing that make it much harder for unions to organise industrial action. 

Dave Prentis, general secretary of the UNISON public services union, said the legislation was “both mean-spirited and vindictive”. He said that it aimed to “try to limit the good work done by unions across the UK, standing up to employers who break the law or play fast and loose with their employees’ safety”. 

In addition, draft regulations currently out for consultation set out new investigatory powers for the Certification Officer (CO) — the office responsible for statutory functions relating to unions and employers’ associations — and fines of up to £20,000 for unions. 

The changes will transform the role of the CO from adjudicator to regulator, and outgoing CO David Cockburn has been highly critical of them. In his 2015-16 annual report, he warned that “trade unions may find themselves subjected to a myriad of references to the Certification Officer by persons and/or organisations seeking to pursue them for industrial, political or other purposes and who have the motivation and money to put any given situation under a microscope”. 

Moreover, “at the very least, trade unions will have to bear the financial burden of contesting such cases”. He said the CO “will in effect be the investigator, prosecutor and adjudicator” which “raises immediate issues of a fair trial”.

Draconian though these measures are, unions expect a future Tory government to propose even more restrictions on their ability to organise strike action. 

In January 2017, 50 Tory MPs signed a letter to the Telegraph newspaper backing the Industrial Action (Protection of Critical National Services) Bill, introduced into Parliament under the so-called Ten Minute Rule by the Conservative MP for Croydon South Chris Philps. 

MPs rejected his proposals, which would further restrict strike action on the railways and other transport systems, the NHS and ambulance and fire services, and require a High Court judge to rule on whether strike action could go ahead. But, according to the Campaign for Trade Union Freedom, the proposals provide “an insight into the ideology followed by many Tory backbenchers”. 

The clear aim of the Trade Union Act is to make it harder for workers to defend themselves and oppose austerity. 


According to Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS civil service union, the Tory government has “imposed vicious cuts on workers’ rights, pay and pensions, while also slashing tens of thousands of jobs”. And “through ongoing and grinding austerity, [it] has sought to scapegoat public sector workers and the most vulnerable people in society for an economic crisis caused by the banks”. (See box below on cuts to welfare benefits.)

Slashing social security support 

Under the leadership of David Cameron, the 2015 Conservative Party manifesto promised: “We will find £12 billion from welfare savings, on top of the £21 billion of savings delivered in this Parliament.” 

Following the Brexit vote to leave the European Union and Cameron’s departure, the new work and pensions minister Damian Green said that there would be no “new” welfare cuts under Theresa May’s government. 

But those already in place, including the benefits freeze introduced from April 2016, are continuing to cause hardship and misery for unemployed households and low-income working families alike. 

The Tory government has presided over swingeing cuts to benefits over the last two years, hitting families with children, young people, disabled people — and even bereaved families — hard. Since May 2015 alone, it has lowered the so-called Benefit Cap, reducing the overall amount in benefits that households with children can receive by £3,000 a year in London (from £26,000 to £23,000) and by £6,000 a year (from £26,00 to £20,000) outside London. 

It has introduced a new “two-child policy” for support for children through tax credits and Universal Credit (UC), including a particularly nasty “rape clause”. 

This requires women who have a third child as a result of rape to prove it in order to claim support for the child. 

The Tories have slashed work allowances — the amount of money people can earn before their benefit starts to be reduced — and withdrawn entitlement to support for housing costs for many 18- to 21-year-olds. 

They have introduced legislation to overturn tribunal rulings extending the disability benefit, Personal Independence Payment, to around 160,000 claimants, mainly with those mental health conditions, and have cut by £30 a week Employment and Support Allowance for disabled claimants who need help finding work. 

In addition, a new lower Bereavement Support Payment will leave most bereaved families worse off than under the system of support in place before April 2017, in some cases by tens of thousands of pounds. 

In addition, the Department for Work and Pensions imposed 400,000 benefits sanctions on claimants in 2015. And there are long delays in payments as UC is rolled out, resulting in debt, rent arrears and reliance on food banks.

PCS members’ pay packets have been hit hard by a combination of the ongoing 1% civil service pay cap, the removal of salary progression and increased pension and National Insurance contributions.

“Many civil servants are struggling to make ends meet while suffering huge stress and strain as they’re expected to do more with fewer resources and public services are being run down,” Serwotka told Labour Research. 


It is a similar story in other parts of the public sector, according to Prentis. He said: “Spending cuts have had a devastating impact on public services, placing staff under immense pressure as they struggle to do more with significantly less cash.” 

Prentis said that while public service workers are still managing to deliver quality services to local people, despite huge challenges, ministers have inflicted two further years of “pay pain” by persisting with the 1% cap, which has not helped already plummeting morale in town halls, hospitals and schools. 

He said the cap is “making staff think seriously about taking up better paid jobs beyond our public services”. Prentis added: “Job cuts and a general lack of cash have meant huge vacancy rates, adding to the stresses of the job, and decisions like that to axe the student nurse bursary have only made a bad situation much worse.”

The government confirmed in July last year that from 1 August 2017, new nursing, midwifery and most allied health students will no longer receive NHS bursaries. 

Research published by UNISON and the students’ NUS union said that the decision to scrap the bursary funding would mean around 2,000 fewer people a year studying for a career in the NHS. 

The independent economic analysis said the impact would be even fewer qualified new recruits for the NHS from 2020. This would cause trusts to spend more on agency staff or overseas recruitment to make up an inevitable shortfall in numbers.


The education system meanwhile, continues to be under severe strain. According to the ATL teaching union, over the last two years, government policies have damaged children’s education and prospects and worsened teachers’ pay and conditions. 

Workloads have increased while pay has fallen in real terms. In addition, says the union, changes in the way teachers are trained has created a teacher supply model that is failing to recruit enough teachers. “With almost all secondary subjects having fewer teachers trained than is needed, the quality of education drops no matter how hard teachers, support staff and their leaders work,” ATL general secretary Mary Bousted said. 

With funding for education failing to keep pace with inflation and the rising costs facing schools, there is less support for children with special educational needs, fewer subject choices for GCSEs and A-levels, fewer vocational courses, larger class sizes, dilapidated school buildings, fewer up-to-date resources and staff redundancies. 

But another Tory government would see worse to come. Bousted added that current plans “will see schools having to make savings of £3 billion annually less than two years from now”.


Theresa May’s administration has taken decisions which mean that 99% of schools are going to lose funding, while wasting money on grammar and free schools, according to teaching union NUT general secretary Kevin Courtney. 

It has spent £138.5 million on free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools that either closed, partially closed or failed to open.


And teaching union NASUWT general secretary Chris Keates says that the damaging impacts of government policy over the last two years have been felt beyond education.

“A damaging legacy of the last two years is the failure of the government’s policy programme to tackle inequality and discrimination, together with rising levels of intolerance and hatred in our workplaces and communities,” she told Labour Research. “With deep cuts to public services, deregulation and a divisive immigration Act and EU referendum, the government has fostered conditions in which the rights of immigrants, other minorities and many other workers are no longer guaranteed,” she added.

Clearly it is not only public sector unions and their members that are feeling the impact of Tory attacks. In the view of shopworkers’ union Usdaw, it is thanks to polices brought in by the Tories over the last two years that average wages have fallen compared to inflation, leaving Britons worse off. As the union points out, a record of nearly one million UK workers are now on zero hours contracts. 

The union says its members are severely impacted by cuts in the public services they rely on, including mounting pressure on the NHS. Two hundred thousand patients are waiting more than 18 weeks for operations, with NHS targets effectively abandoned. Meanwhile, cuts in social care funding (by a fifth since 2010) account for over 30,000 deaths a year of elderly people, according to academics. 


Usdaw also points to the government’s appalling housing record — the lowest number of affordable homes built for 24 years while housing waiting lists are rising. 

On welfare, the union points out, the government has frozen tax credits and Child Benefit for five years, cutting families’ support by £1,500 a year. Its introduction of Universal Credit (UC) will make 4.2 million families a further £2,000 a year worse off. And it has removed the Disability Living Allowance from half a million disabled people, cut support for disabled people who cannot find a job by £30 a week, and cut support for disabled children by £1,500 a year (see box on page 14).

“Usdaw members are very concerned about a Conservative government that has continually hit the lowest paid workers the hardest,” Usdaw general secretary John Hannett told Labour Research. He described incomes as “under attack with cuts in tax credits”, and UC as “a ticking time bomb for many working families”. 

No friends of workers

“The Tories in government have repeatedly shown themselves to be no friends to working people or trade unions,” said a spokesperson for the Unite general union. “From restricting access to justice [see box above], capping public sector pay, savage cuts to local government, to the draconian Trade Union Act which has curtailed freedoms and further shifted power into the hands of the bosses, it has been working class communities in the firing line.”

Chris Keates called on the government elected on June 8 to prioritise securing social and community cohesion by guaranteeing workers’ rights and investing in education, health and other public services which are “the bedrock of a fair and inclusive society”.

Attacks on employment law and access to justice 

In addition to restricting trade union organisation and action, the Tory government has also brought in, or proposed, a series of measures attacking individual workers’ rights and access to justice. And it has refused to reverse changes brought in by the previous Conservative-led coalition government. 

For example, the 2016 Immigration Act created a new offence of illegal working, and prosecutors can now confiscate the “proceeds” of the “crime” — the very low wages that undocumented migrant workers typically earn. The TUC says the changes will deter vulnerable workers from reporting abuses at work, leaving bad bosses free to use undocumented workers to undercut other workers.

Public sector workers leaving their job as part of a redundancy or early leaver scheme will be worse off as a result of a new £95,000 cap on exit payments due to come into force later this year. Under the proposals, employees earning £80,000 or more would be expected to repay their employers if they return to public sector employment within a year, and there would be new limits on the tariffs used to calculate redundancy pay (see Labour Research, April 2017, pages 13-15). 

The government has also refused to reduce or abolish employment tribunal fees, introduced by the coalition in 2013. Its long-awaited review of the fees, published in January 2017, showed a 70% drop in the number of cases taken to employment tribunals over the past three-and-a-half years. But public services union UNISON reported that, “despite the review accepting that there’s been a ‘sharp, significant and sustained’ drop in the number of claims, ministers have decided access to justice hasn’t been affected”. 

General secretary of the UNISON public services union Dave Prentis told Labour Research: “The imposition of tribunal fees has been a real barrier to justice for many low-paid workers, giving unscrupulous bosses a green light to discriminate at whim. Low-paid women have been the real losers.”

The outcome of the latest stage of UNISON’s legal challenge against the decision to make employees pay to bring a case against their employers, heard in the Supreme Court in March 2017, is currently awaited. In the meantime, the government is pressing ahead with more radical reforms to the courts and justice system that unions say will prevent potential claimants from accessing justice (see Labour Research, April 2017, page 21).

In addition, it has continued to cut funding to regulators including the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Health and Safety Executive — shopworkers’ union Usdaw points out that funding for workplace health and safety inspections and advice has been halved since 2010. 

And it has continued to sideline unions on such bodies. At the board of the predecessor body to the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, for example, there has been no one with experience of representing workers since 2014. And there is no trade union voice among the eight board members at the new Institute for Apprenticeships.