Page last updated at 09:31 GMT, Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Labour revolt over union rights

Palace of Westminster
The government says the bill will improve trade union rights

The government has seen off the biggest backbench rebellion since Gordon Brown became prime minister over union rights on strike ballots.

Some 44 Labour MPs and 9 members of other parties rebelled against the government over the Employment Bill.

But their move was rejected by 408 votes to 53, a government majority 355.

Fifteen Labour MPs also called on unions to be allowed to expel BNP members without penalty but that amendment was not put to the vote.

Left winger John McDonnell led the rebellion over strike ballot rights, describing the current rules as "onerous, costly and over-complicated".

Speaking during a report stage debate, he said they tended to "sour industrial relations" turning the industrial climate into one of "hostility rather than negotiation".

'Dark days'

Moving what he described as an "extremely reasonable and moderate" amendment to the Bill, he said there should be a duty on employers to co-operate with unions when conducting a ballot for industrial action.

This is a huge rebellion in a by-election week and sends out the clearest possible signal to the government that we are not doing enough on trade union rights
John McDonnell
Labour MP

Union membership records are often hindered by flexible work patterns, outsourcing of work and the movement of workers between different workplaces, argued Mr McDonnell.

He also called for workers taking lawful industrial action to be protected from being "sued, sacked or penalised".

Jonathan Djanogly, for the Conservatives, launched an attack on Mr McDonnell's demands saying they would take the country back to the "dark days of the 1970s" and companies would be "held to ransom" by striking workers.

He said: "Here the true face and belief of the hard left of the Labour Party is exposed and for business it is not a very pretty sight."

BNP move

Business Minister Pat McFadden also rejected Mr McDonnell's move, saying: "I am, of course, happy to continue a dialogue with trade unions about how the law operates ... but I am not convinced that a duty on employers to help trade unions organise these ballots is the right way forward."

Mr McFadden said there were already measures in place to prevent firms penalising workers taking part in legitimate industrial action.

The vote prompted the biggest backbench Labour revolt since Mr Brown took over from Tony Blair in June 2007. The previous record was 36 Labour rebels as the government scraped home by nine votes over 42-day detention for terror suspects.

Commenting afterwards, Mr McDonnell said: "This is a huge rebellion in a by-election week and sends out the clearest possible signal to the government that we are not doing enough on trade union rights."

An expected rebellion on moves to safeguard the rights of workers expelled from trade unions for BNP membership did not materialise as the move was not put to the vote.

Lords amendment

Under the Employment Bill, which is due to become law in the next few weeks, unions will be able to eject members whose beliefs are in opposition to those of the union.

But trade unions will have to make their opposition to the BNP or any other organisation clear in their rulebook, ensure they act fairly in their procedures and compensate any members judged to have been expelled unfairly.

The government backed a Lords amendment introducing these safeguards, saying it struck the right balance between an individual's rights to freedom of association and their political beliefs.

But Parliamentary Labour Party chairman Tony Lloyd, who fears BNP "infiltration" of the union movement, said the Lords amendment offered "too much protection" to the individual at the expense of the rights of the unions.

"An individual fascist member who doesn't want to be a member of the same union as black, Jewish or Asian colleagues, his or her interests are put ahead of those colleagues to not want to be a member of a trade union with a fascist involved. That is an important freedom that we are seeing eroded."

He claimed that the BNP in its magazine was telling their members to join a union so they could reveal themselves before seeking a "five-figure payout" in compensation.

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