A version of this article was originally published by the New Statesman.
Keir Hardie would be aghast if he could see the state of the trade union movement today. Its reputation has been comprehensively trashed and the sad truth is that, too often, this is completely justified. Knee-jerk, reactionary opposition to even modest public service reforms has become an article of faith amongst the union leadership. Mass strikes, often with low turnouts and based on ballots taken years ago, impose misery and heavy economic costs on the wider public.
The unions as a whole have failed to keep up with changes in the labour market. They have become intransigent, complacent and are too often not adequately representing the interests of workers. If they don’t accept the need for change, they will become increasingly irrelevant and a relic of the past. Unfortunately, many trade union leaders seem hell-bent on continuing with this self-destructive approach. In response to the Government’s proposed reforms, some union leaders have threatened civil disobedience, unlawful strike action and have even compared the reforms to Nazi policies. Such comments and actions only serve to discredit the union leadership and to alienate them from their membership and the population at large.
The Government proposes to switch the political levy for members of unions affiliated to a political party to an opt-in. Unions provide important services and support to their members; any political activities are only secondary for the vast majority of members. If politically affiliated unions want to funnel a portion of their members’ pay packets to the Labour Party, then they should have to make a proper case for it and persuade their members to make an active decision to do so rather than relying on inertia. Elsewhere, the Government wants to tackle intimidation of non-striking workers and ensure that strikes cannot be held based on ballots held years ago. Arguing against these self-evidently sensible proposals will prove utterly unproductive for union leaders.
The more contentious and important of the reforms is to ballot thresholds. Strike ballots will only be legitimate if more than 50% of eligible members vote and in some sectors, such as health, transport and border security, if more than 40% of eligible members vote in favour of industrial action. The reason why industrial action has become so monstrously unpopular, even though the number of days lost to strikes is far lower than in the 1980s, is that when a union votes to strike, the costs of that decision are not just felt by the employees and the employers.
When the NUT goes out on strike action, teachers lose their pay and parents have to take a day off work or pay for emergency childcare. Single parents without the support of extended families are hit the most. When the RMT and Aslef strike, people are late for work and miss hospital appointments. The key reason why strike ballots are not the same as other votes is that before even considering the significant external costs, if the union votes to strike on an absurdly low turnout, all the members are expected to actively support that decision by striking and losing a day’s pay.
This broader economic damage hurts people who have nothing to do with the dispute and is rarely internalised in negotiations. It is deeply unjust that they should suffer on the basis of strikes carried out due to the support of only a small proportion of union members. The Regulatory Impact Assessment undertaken by the Business Department estimates that these new thresholds would reduce the number of work stoppages by around 65% and have a net economic benefit of more than £100 million. Unions which resort to strike action too early and without widespread support will lose out. However, those unions which can pass these thresholds could see their bargaining power increase because they will then justifiably be able to claim real legitimacy and a clear mandate for action.
We would be poorer, less free and less secure without a vibrant trade union movement; one that stands up for workers but accepts the need to reform to stay competitive, one that will drive a hard bargain but won’t hold the country to ransom. Trade unionists should embrace these reforms; working people deserve better than the status quo.