THE leader of one of Scotland’s biggest trade unions has warned that it would be prepared to break the law if the Tory government goes ahead with controversial plans to crackdown on the right to strike.
David Cameron’s government is to outlaw any strike not voted for by at least 40 per cent of eligible union members and where the turnout does not reach 50 per cent in the biggest shake-up of employment laws since those introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s governments in the 1980s.
However, Unite Scotland boss Pat Rafferty said “bad laws should not expect our respect” as he said the Tories, who have just one Scottish MP, did not have a mandate to impose such a change north of the Border.
He said that such a law change was “not worthy of respect” and claimed it would effectively outlaw the right to strike by meaning that a majority vote for industrial action would no longer make a dispute legal.
Rafferty warned that Unite would break the law by going ahead with industrial action if it won a majority in a strike ballot, but fell short of the 40 per cent threshold set out in the legislation from the Tories.
Defiance of employment laws by Unite would represent the first such challenge since the 1980s, when unions such as the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) were locked in court battles with the Thatcher government over the legality of industrial action.
The plan to curb strike action was set out in the Tory’s government’s Queen’s speech alongside a plan to lift the ban on the employment of agency staff during disputes.
Critics of the legislation have pointed out that only a handful of MPs elected on 7 May won more than 40 per cent of the electorate in their individual constituencies.
Rafferty said that such “sweeping draconian measures” from Westminster, would not be accepted by workers in Scotland due to the lack of support for the Tories north of the Border.
He stated that the Tories did not have the democratic legitimacy to restrict the employment rights of workers in Scotland and that unions would actively resist such legislation, which is reserved to Westminster.
Rafferty said: “A party with only one MP in this country, and for whom only around one in four people voted for across the UK, the Tory party has to be very careful about whether it has the mandate to take apart the fundamental freedoms of the people.
“Unite is committed to operating effectively within the law, but if this Tory government is as good as its word and acts to bring in sweeping draconian measures, then we will have to ask ourselves - can we any longer keep to that commitment?
“Bad laws should not expect our respect. I would certainly count laws that turn desperate workers exercising their basic human right to protect themselves from exploitation into criminals as bad laws and as such not worthy of respect.”
Rafferty said that Unite in Scotland would not tolerate policies rejected by the Scottish electorate on 7 May such as the curbs on strikes being imposed on the workforce north of the border.
The union leader attacked the Tories’s plans as “confrontational” and accused the UK government of attempting to “create new crimes” by introducing tighter restrictions on strike action.
He said: “Then there is the clear issue of whether it even has the power to impose new sanctions on Scotland’s workers. Justice is a devolved matter. It is not for the Westminster government to create new crimes and expect that they will apply in Scotland.
“We always knew that a Tory government would act to destroy the remaining freedoms of UK workers because they want to silence opposition – to cuts, to the destruction of vital services and to the troubling inequality in these isles.”
Labour MSP Neil Findlay also suggested that unions should resist the UK government’s planned restrictions on industrial action.
He said: “The trade union bill proposed by Cameron is yet more evidence of this governments next attack on groups that it’s takes pleasure in punishing - immigrants, the poor, the low paid and trade unions.
We should seek to build the strongest and widest possible alliance across Scotland and the UK to oppose any law that undermines decency, dignity at work and fairness.”
However, Tory MSP Alex Johnstone warned that strike action in defiance of the law would make unions unpopular with the public.
He said: “The trade union would do well to take on board the changes the government is proposing, as strike action that affects members of the public must be relevant and demonstrate that it has support.
“If a union is determined to take strike action on a small ballot turnout it will incur the hostility of the public.
“The trade union movement has to find a balanced role in society rather than taking up the sort of adversarial line that damaged it in the 1980s.”