What will you post on Facebook or Twitter in 14 days’ time?

The UK government’s new bill restricting trade unions has an alarming proposal in it that has potentially devastating negative consequences for people working in public relations, digital communications and social media including members of the CIPR and PRCA. I invited Antonia Bance, the TUC’s head of campaigns and communications to write a guest post explaining the implications so PR professionals can take action to lobby against the proposals. Please share this blog post to help spread the word.

What will you post on Facebook or Twitter in 14 days’ time?

If you’re a typical internet user, you probably don’t know – and the likelihood is it’ll be cat pics or photos of your dinner anyway. But for people on strike, the question may be about to be asked for real – with fines if their union doesn’t comply.

PR professionals can be forgiven for not noticing the implications for them of the new trade union restrictions being proposed by the government. After all, the political headlines all summer have been dominated by the never-ending Labour leadership contest, and the proposals were published just as parliament broke up for recess. If noticed at all, most people would have seen the top lines that the government wants to talk about: a new 50% threshold for all strike ballots, and a turnout threshold on top in so-called “important public services”.

But the bill is much wider than this – and it could have a chilling effect on public relations, campaigning and digital communications.

One of the key proposals is a new requirement for unions going on strike to publish a campaign plan 14 days in advance, and give it to the police and the employer. The plan would set out details of any picket or protest and whether the union plans to use ‘loudspeakers, props, banners etc’. And the government proposes that unions must report on plans to use Twitter, Facebook or other social media accounts, and to post on websites and blogs.

Never mind that there’s already a strong code of conduct that’s well-adhered to – and no evidence for any problems with picketing. Never mind that the government’s own red tape watchdog, the Regulatory Policy Committee, noted that the government hadn’t made a case for the changes and gave the government’s impact assessments a red rating – “not fit for purpose”. And never mind that the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD), who represent HR professionals call it “an outdated response to the challenges of the modern workplace”.

The TUC is worried that these proposals are designed to deter unions and their members from using social media to promote their campaigns and mobilise support. We can’t think of any other organisations who have to tell the police if they plan to use social media or websites as part of lawful campaigning.

And although the government has claimed that this wouldn’t apply to individual union members, it’s clear that there’s a huge grey area – as anyone who advises their organisation or clients on social media will recognise. What constitutes an official account? Will a union member who changes their Twitter profile to their union’s logo be considered to have been tweeting on behalf of the union? Will a workplace rep whose Twitter profile notes their volunteer union role be seen as running a personal or an organisational account?

Getting this wrong could lead to unions being tied up in expensive legal challenges, individuals’ social media coming under surveillance and unions being fined up to £20,000 for each breach. And it goes against the whole spirit of the internet – founded on the free exchange of ideas.

You don’t have to support every strike to be worried by these proposals. The vast majority of the British public still say that unions are vital to protect workers’ interests – and at the heart of that is the threat to take effective strike action, as a last resort. No-one wants to go on strike – and most disputes are settled long before it gets to that point. But the right to take effective strike action has to be there to bring employers to the negotiating table. Otherwise they can trample all over their staff’s views. And workers won’t be able to stand up for decent services and safety at work, or defend their jobs or pay.

So while these restrictions might not affect you or your clients now, if one sector can in a matter of months become subject to government reporting requirements for social and digital activity, who knows where might it end?

If you’d like to get involved in the TUC’s campaign, go to www.tuc.org.uk/tubill.

Antonia Bance is the TUC’s head of campaigns and communications, and leads the TUC’s work on the trade union bill. She was previously the communications and policy director for a domestic abuse charity, and head of campaigns at Shelter.

Freedom of speech graphic from Alan Cleaver used under a Creative Commons licence