The Tories’ trade union bill, which had its second reading today in the Commons, is a bill of naked discrimination against the trade unions designed to severely cut funding for the Labour Party to try to entrench the Tories in power, as well as to make it virtually impossible to strike in certain industrial sectors. However it’s worth quoting the two main purposes of the bill which the government itself pretends are its motives. The first is: “to pursue our ambition to become the most prosperous major economy in the world by 2030”. That is beyond satire. The truth is that 7 years after the Great Crash averages wages are still 6% below pre-crash levels, productivity is flat, the FTSE-100 companies are not investing, and household debt is tipping £2 trillions. The idea that after this bill we’re going to overtake the US and Germany within 15 years after a record like that is daft.
The government’s second reason for this bill is “to ensure hard-working people are not disrupted by little-supported strike action”. The truth is, the number of days lost to strike action now is on average less than one-tenth of what it was during the 1980s. Of far greater impact on the economy is the UK’s chronic under-investment in skills – something the unions themselves want to work with the government to fix. The bill, while obnoxious, is irrelevant to Britain’s real problems.
The tube workers aside, only the teachers and firefighters have caused any real national concern since 2010, and even then they usually did so for just a day at a time. And frankly, even the RMT’s resistance against plans to keep the Underground running all night isn’t that unreasonable. Night shifts are unsociable, unhealthy and potentially dangerous where they lead to over-tiredness. And it’s worth noting that private sector workers were responsible for more stoppages in 2013 than those working in the public sector.
But the central point here is that the government seems to believe that whenever a strike occurs, it’s always the fault of the workers irrespective of what the employer does. The majority of employers may well be decent or reasonable, but there’s still a distinct minority who are intransigent or behave badly. The last thing that workers want to do is go on strike, but when they have genuine, reasonable and pressing demands over such essential issues as job losses, safety problems and pay, and those demands are swept aside often with little or no negotiations, they have no alternative but to take industrial action, and then to pillory and penalise them rather than bad management, as the Tories and the Tory press automatically do, is utterly wrong and unfair.
The worst feature of the bill is making it almost impossible to take industrial action even in such conditions. If for example 1,000 members are entitled to vote, the bill would require 400 members to vote in favour, but if the ballot achieved a 50% turnout, then it would require the sup[port of no less than 80% of those voting members. That is frankly prohibitive, as it is intended to be.