The People’s Assembly, the self-appointed left-wing pressure group behind the recent anti-austerity demonstrations, portrays itself as the voice of the masses struggling under oppressive Tory rule. It claims that no fewer than 250,000 demonstrators went to its rally in central London last month (a figure dutifully regurgitated by broadcasters). But photographs of the event in London indicate no more than 25,000 attended.
The bogusness does not stop there. Despite its demotic name, the People’s Assembly is no spontaneous uprising of the angry British public. On the contrary, the organisation, which counts the comedian Russell Brand and the Guardian columnist Owen Jones among its noisiest advocates, is bankrolled by the trade unions, those wealthy institutions that have been part of Britain’s political landscape since the 19th century. At least 11 trade unions are backing the group, including the National Union of Teachers, Unison, the Communication Workers Union and Unite, led by the notorious Merseyside firebrand Len McCluskey, who keeps a drawing of Lenin in his office.
Not content with organising puppet demonstrations, the unions are conducting a fresh assault on the working public. This week London has been preparing for a 24-hour strike on the London Underground. The drivers’ union Aslef promises a ‘complete shutdown of the entire underground system’. We will then experience three days of misery on the First Great Western network, led by members of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), who are apparently aggrieved at the loss of guards’ jobs on some new trains. A further strike is probable on Northern Rail, over ‘jobs and safety’, again courtesy of the RMT. Some eight million of us could find our travels disrupted.
Nor will the paralysis be confined to transport. Unions at the National Gallery have organised 47 days of strike action this year in response, among other things, to the dismissal of a union official. The Probation Service will be hit next week by a stoppage over pay. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) is also holding a strike ballot of its members at the driving licence agency in Swansea in a dispute about weekend bonus payments. The perennial classroom warriors of the National Union of Teachers voted at their recent conference in Harrogate to back potential future strike action over pay and pensions.
It is telling that this spirit of confrontation is almost wholly the preserve of the public services. The unions are now largely the creatures of the public sector, with their memberships disproportionately drawn from the state payroll. Just one in seven private sector workers is unionised, compared with just over half of state employees. It is a pattern that has grossly distorted the nature and activity of the trade unions, making them eager to exploit their monopolistic power in defence of vested interests instead of engaging in dialogue for the wider economic good, like their counterparts in Sweden and Germany.
Once trade unions were the authentic voice of the British working class. Now they are noisy pressure groups for a narrow part of the national workforce. One Labour supporter, Ellie Mae O’Hagan, wrote recently that ‘when the trade unions are weakened, the rights of all working people are compromised, and we’ll all suffer for that’. This sentimental rhetoric, all too common on the left, is wrongheaded. The unions used to be allies of working people; now they are adversaries.
Enterprise and growth are constantly jeopardised by union antics. Sensible reform in the state sector is regularly thwarted by the threat of union trouble. Isn’t it about time we said enough is enough? Something has to be done to emasculate these evangelists for failure and conflict — and David Cameron, now with a Conservative majority, is ideally placed to do it.
The ability of the last coalition government to take on the unions was limited by the posturing of Liberal Democrats — especially by Vince Cable, the anti-business secretary, always eager to brandish his left-wing credentials. Cable even neutered a review into union practices that was designed to end the kind of intimidatory actions which took place during the notorious Grangemouth oil refinery dispute, which included demonstrations outside the homes of executives.
Even so, useful steps have been taken in the past five years. The government cut state funding for union officials in the public sector. The number of taxpayer-bankrolled representatives has been drastically reduced, from 250 to just eight in the civil service.
In a second welcome move, the coalition ended the practice of check-off, whereby trade union subscriptions were collected directly by the civil service from staff salaries. This absurd anomaly not only placed an administrative burden on the employer but also inflated union membership beyond real support. Check-off was designed for an era before most employees had bank accounts; when workers were asked to set up direct debit payments, a great many decided there were better uses for their money. Once its members had greater freedom, the PCS found its coffers emptying; it is now selling its Clapham headquarters to a private equity firm.
Action was also taken against union bullying — but not enough. The time has come for the Prime Minister to take a long look at the unions, and what they have become. A rational assessment of the situation makes the case for much further reform.
The unions’ language of class struggle is as outdated as the working practices they are so keen to maintain. Far from being oppressed, most public-sector workers enjoy higher pay, greater job security, longer holidays, better pensions and shorter hours than staff in the private sector. Indeed, many of those currently engaged in strike action on the railways are extremely well remunerated. Underground drivers earn almost £50,000 — almost a third more than their average passenger — but still not enough to stop them striking. The average pay of maintenance engineers is £42,000, having risen 40 per cent in the past ten years, while the RMT leader Mick Cash, who likes to see himself as the champion of the proletariat, is thought to enjoy an annual pay package worth £138,000.
Things are getting worse, not better. Last year, the number of days lost to union stoppages was 788,000, treble that in 2012 — and 716,000 of these days were in the public sector. The unions’ continuing slide away from the mainstream and towards the political fringes is shown in other ways, such as their support for the candidacy of the dogmatic left-winger Jeremy Corbyn in the current Labour leadership contest. Already five major unions have endorsed him, including the RMT, the Fire Brigades Union and Unite, which said that his policies ‘were most closely aligned’ with its own. Given that Corbyn is an unreconstructed Trotskyite who supports Hezbollah and loathes capitalism, that says a lot about McCluskey’s union.
Nor, for all their talk about standing up for the people, are the unions remotely democratic or representative. Fewer than a third of Southern Rail engineers, for instance, voted for the present industrial action, while barely two in five RMT members at First Great Western voted at all in their strike ballot. It is intolerable that millions of commuters should effectively be held to ransom by a self-serving minority. With a majority government, the Prime Minister is no longer forced to tolerate it.
Mr Cameron can now tighten the conditions under which a strike could be held. At present, the lives of millions can be disrupted on the votes of a tiny minority of members. In one grotesque recent case, a London bus strike was threatened earlier this year on the support of 16 per cent of those entitled to vote. The Conservatives have pledged to introduce a threshold of 40 per cent. That would end the ability of hardliners to disrupt public services without the support of the majority.
The Trades Union Bill — when it comes — should also include a stipulation that the decision of a strike ballot should be time-limited. Last year, the NUT was still holding one-day strikes on the basis of a vote taken in 2012, in which just a quarter of its membership voted. By stopping unions from voting on industrial action too far into the future, such scandals could be prevented.
Other proposals could include directing greater power and resources to the independent trade unions certification officer, so that accounts and memberships can be properly audited, and a legal requirement that members should opt in to paying the political levy rather than opting out. In Northern Ireland, where an opt-in scheme already exists, just a third of union members volunteer to pay the levy.
The Tories should further consider ending the unions’ immunity from claims for damages arising from strikes. This exemption, introduced through the Trade Disputes Act of 1906, is unique among British institutions and confers on the unions a tremendous amount of power without any commensurate responsibility. It is a privilege that has lingered far too long. Even Margaret Thatcher in her 1980s pomp did not end the exemption but only limited its scope.
Well, this is the unfinished business from Mrs Thatcher’s time. The trade unions should no longer be allowed to behave with such arrogance towards the public. They should be made accountable for their actions. Frances O’Grady, the head of the TUC, recently described talk of restricting union power as ‘a democratic outrage’. But the real outrage is the behaviour of her movement. Its left-wing ideology, championed by Ed Miliband, was comprehensively rejected by the electorate. The Tory government now has a mandate to put the unions in their place. They should not be afraid to do so.