Leading Article: What would the Tolpuddle Martyrs say?

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PETER BOTTOMLEY MP has few delusions about trade unions. As an employment minister for two years in Margaret Thatcher's government, he was a prominent figure in curbing their excessive powers. He was part of a piecemeal process that began in 1982 which has produced six statutes cutting them down to size. So his decision to vote against new anti-trade union legislation carries a certain weight.

He has attacked an amendment in the Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Bill. If accepted by the Commons today, it would permit employers to deny pay rises or other benefits to employees who refuse to sign personal contracts. In practice, the Bill would allow employers to bribe staff not to be union members, for there is very limited point in being in a trade union if one is no longer part of a collective bargaining process. The inevitable effect would be to diminish the immediate attraction of a trade union. Not only might the individual trade unionist face lower pay, he or she might also be assigned more unpleasant work.

The Government adopted the amendment to circumvent a Court of Appeal judgment: a poor principle for legislating. The Court of Appeal had judged that such differential pay rates broke a long-established law that prevents employers discriminating against trade unionists.

However, ministers say that opponents of the amendment have exaggerated its intentions. They quite rightly point out that it will remain illegal to discriminate against someone because of trade union membership. Additionally, it may seem only reasonable that people should be free to accept a financial incentive for giving up their rights to collective bargaining. If employees, at least in the short run, find they are better off choosing a personal contract than by negotiating alongside colleagues, trade unions will be kept on their toes.

This legislation needs to be examined carefully. If it is in fact no more than giving people more opportunity to improve their lot through individual rather than joint action, it should be accepted. Trade unions are, after all, not an end in themselves: they exist to ensure that employees are not exploited or endangered because of their lack of power relative to an employer. If individuals can achieve these ends better than a trade union, then such collective bodies will prove redundant.

If, however, the Government is simply handing power to employers to abuse the weak, the amendment is a dangerous erosion of civil liberties. Freedom of association today seems to be an automatic right, but in the last century that was not the case. In 1834, six Dorset farm labourers, who became known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, were transported to Australia because of their trade union activities.

Rights are frequently eroded rather than abolished. It is important that the amendment which so concerns Mr Bottomley is not the thin end of the wedge. The judicious will want to know whether it genuinely empowers employees or simply chips away at rights that have been won over many years with great pain and struggle.