Before last week, who had heard of Mick Lynch, General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, and the new bogeyman of commuters everywhere? Who has heard of Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, the joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union, or Mark Sewotka, the 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 may know Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, for her performance during the big BBC Brexit debate back in 2016. But asides from their predilection for posturing or trashing Tories as TV talking heads, neither pricks the consciousness of most of us particularly often.
Despite Kate Bush being at number one, this is not the seventies or the eighties. Trade union leaders do not habitually play a huge part in our national political debate, or in setting government policy. The Red Robbos or Arthur Scargills of the twenty-first century are not seen lecturing gnarled-faced and donkey-jacketed men on the evening news. The modern equivalents of Jack Jones and Len Murray are not often in Number 10 for beer and sandwiches.
Working out why is not hard. According to the annual Statistical Bulletin for Trade Union Membership, the proportion of UK workers in a trade union was just 23.1 percent 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. Even then, membership is largely in formerly nationalised industries like water, gas, or the Royal Mail.
Since the trade unions had their wings clipped by Mrs Thatcher’s reforms (largely through giving more power to their own members), and since the denationalisation of most major industries has ended the situation where unions were continually negotiating with the Government, their power and influence has faded. Union membership has ceased to be attractive outside of the public sector. Negligible inflation has also suppressed wage demands.
Then Covid, lockdowns, supply-chain bottlenecks, and the war in Ukraine happened – and the Bank of England, our government, and most of the commentariat were caught napping. Now, as inflation surges past 9 percent (well done, Andrew Bailey), dealing with union wage demands has returned to the centre stage of our politics. And not only because everyone in Westminster is frustrated about having to work at home for a day or two.
Whilst the Government may have been somewhat surprised by this ‘Summer of Discontent’, the Conservative Party’s muscle memory has ensured it has leapt into action. The Transport Secretary has sworn to stay out of negotiations between the rail companies and the RMT. Instead, the Government has focused on making the easy political points that leading trade unionists are Marxists, that the Labour party is clueless, and that a wage-price spiral would not be much fun.
Of course, on all these it is right – and especially later. As Simon Clark, the Chief Secretary of the Treasury, has told Sky News, if we don’t want the inflation problem “to either intensify or prolong itself, then we need to be sensible around pay awards.” Inflation is a consequence of energy price spikes, post-Covid disruption, and governmental money-printing. That suggests it is transient.
But giving in to demands for pay rises of 9 percent or more will bake in the expectation of inflation as it did in the seventies, and the problem of inflation will go from being transient to permanent. So the Government needs to hold the line on pay in the short term. But it also needs a plan for dealing with the unions in the long-term. Doing a Mrs Thatcher impression may have been good for Liz Truss’ leadership prospects. But it is not a political strategy.
When Mrs Thatcher took the fight to the unions, it was after a decade of governmental failure to rein in their immunities and obstreperousness. In Place of Strife, the 1971 Industrial Relations Act, the Social Contract – all had to be tried, and either be broken by the unions or evaporate in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ before voters were willing to accept that something difficult must be done.
The Government has no patience for such long-term strategy – it lives day-to-day and headline-by-headline. Nevertheless, it has obvious policy options to pursue if it wants to harness this outburst of union disagreeableness to its advantage. Shapps committed, back in 2019, to introducing legislation to guarantee minimum levels of service during rail strikes. A similar pledge was made during and after the 2015 election.
Yet nothing has happened. Back then, one supposes it was meant to please Tory activists – but now the case for it has been made. Introducing such a measure would bring England into line, as the IEA’s Len Shackleton has pointed out, with the notoriously anti-worker governments of, erm, Belgium, France, and Italy. Such a measure would reduce disruption of this week’s type in future – and would reduce calls for a quick but costly settlement for a quiet life.
The Government is also right to float the idea of allowing rail companies to use agency workers. A world city like London should not be partially shutdown due to the intransigence of a small number of railway workers – especially as driving the Tube is not overly difficult, and those who do are very well renumerated. And whilst we wait for driverless trains to finally be forced in, agency staff are the next best thing.
There is the slight concern that any action by the Government against the unions looks like over-kill, a reflex response to the return of an old Tory bugbear. Making the case for pay restraint is also more difficult whilst the triple lock ensures pensioners see an uprating of their income in line with inflation – on top of the National Insurance-funded asset-protection scheme the Government blessed them with last year.
But we must also remember that the unions are, in many parts, still Harold Wilson’s “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men” – or, as Dominic Sandbrook put it last week, “the worst of Britain”. Germany bans civil servants, lecturers, and some teachers from striking. Our government can go just as far. Though as my girlfriend is a teacher, and I’d rather like to keep her on side, it could perhaps still consider a pay rise for the latter.