What can and should the government do about trade unions?


Before last week, who had heard of Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the National Union of Railway, Maritime and Transport Workers, and the new bogeyman of commuters around the world? Who has heard of Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, joint general secretaries of the National Education Union, or Mark Sewotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union? All are threatening to strike this summer.

You may remember Len McCluskey, the former general secretary of Unite, for his closeness to Jeremy Corbyn. Or you might know Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, for her performance at the BBC’s big Brexit debate in 2016. Most of us particularly often.

Although Kate Bush is number one, we are neither in the 70s nor in the 80s. Labor leaders do not usually play a significant role in our national political debate or in setting government policy. You don’t see the Red Robbos or Arthur Scargills of the 21st century lecturing gnarled-faced, donkey-jacketed men on the evening news. The modern equivalents of Jack Jones and Len Murray aren’t often number 10 for beer and sandwiches.

Understanding why is not difficult. According to the Annual Statistical Bulletin on Union Membership, the proportion of British workers in a union was just 23.1% last year – the lowest number on record. It was over half when Margaret Thatcher came to power. 60 percent of union members are in the public sector, and only 12.8 in the private sector. Even then, membership largely concerns formerly nationalized industries such as water, gas or the Royal Mail.

Since unions had their wings clipped by Mrs Thatcher’s reforms (largely by giving more power to their own members) and since the denationalisation of most major industries ended the situation where unions were bargaining continuously with the government, their power and influence washed away. Union membership ceased to be attractive outside the public sector. Negligible inflation also suppressed wage demands.

Then Covid, the lockdowns, supply chain bottlenecks and war in Ukraine happened – and the Bank of England, our government and most commentators were caught napping. Today, with inflation rising above 9% (well done, Andrew Bailey), the handling of union wage demands has returned to the center of our policy. And not just because everyone in Westminster is frustrated with having to work from home for a day or two.

While the government may have been somewhat surprised by this “summer of discontent,” the Conservative Party’s tough memory has allowed it to take action. The Transport Secretary has vowed to stay out of negotiations between the rail companies and the RMT. Instead, the government has focused on easy political arguments that leading trade unionists are Marxists, that Labor has no idea, and that a wage-price spiral would not be much fun.

Of course, on all of this, it’s fair – and especially later. As Simon Clark, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told Sky News, if we don’t want the inflation problem “to intensify or be prolonged, we need to be reasonable about pay”. . Inflation is a consequence of energy price spikes, post-Covid disruptions and government printing of money. This suggests that it is transient.

But giving in to demands for wage increases of 9% or more will fuel inflation expectations as it did in the 1970s, and the inflation problem will turn from transitory to permanent. The government must therefore maintain the line on short-term wages. But he also needs a plan for dealing with the unions in the long term. Making a Mrs. Thatcher impression may have been good for Liz Truss’ leadership prospects. But this is not a political strategy.

When Mrs Thatcher led the fight against the unions, it was after a decade of government failure to rein in their immunity and brutality. In place of conflictthe Industrial Relations Act 1971, the social contract – all had to be tried, and either broken up by the unions or evaporated in the ‘winter of discontent’ before voters were willing to accept anything difficult had to be done.

The government has no patience for such a long-term strategy – it lives day to day and title by title. Nonetheless, he has obvious policy options to pursue if he is to exploit this explosion of union discontent to his advantage. Shapps has pledged, as early as 2019, to introduce legislation ensuring minimum levels of service during rail strikes. A similar promise was made during and after the 2015 elections.

Yet nothing happened. At the time it was assumed it was intended to appeal to conservative activists – but now it is. Introducing such a measure would bring England into line, as Len Shackleton of the IEA has pointed out, with the notoriously anti-working-class governments of, uh, Belgium, France and Italy. Such a measure would reduce disruptions of the type of this week in the future – and reduce calls for a quick but costly settlement for a quiet life.

The government is also right to float the idea of ​​allowing railway companies to use agency workers. A global city like London shouldn’t come to a partial standstill due to the intransigence of a small number of railway workers – especially since driving the Tube isn’t too difficult, and those who do are fine remunerated. And while we wait for driverless trains to finally be forced, agency staff are the next best thing.

There is the slight concern that any government action against unions looks like an exaggeration, a knee-jerk response to the return of an old Tory bogeyman. It is also more difficult to argue for wage moderation, while the triple lockout guarantees pensioners an increase in their income in line with inflation – on top of the National Insurance-funded asset protection scheme that the government granted them last year.

But we must also remember that the trade unions are, in many ways, still Harold Wilson’s “close-knit group of politically motivated men” – or, as Dominic Sandbrook put it last week, “the worst in Grande -Brittany”. Germany bans civil servants, lecturers and some teachers from striking. Our government can go that far. Even if as my girlfriend is a teacher, and I prefer to keep her by my side, we could perhaps still consider a salary increase for the latter.


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