Ed Holmes

Vince Cable dances with the unions

The Business Secretary’s words to the GMB union today about the government’s reluctance to reform Britain’s antiquated trade unions laws could hardly have been more modest. He called for a ‘mature and productive relationship’ with the trade union movement. Given the reception he received, this seems like wishful thinking (we at Policy Exchange had a dose of the GMB’s approach when it described our recent report on public sector pay as ‘propoganda [sic] in the tradition of reports by Joseph Goebbels’). Despite the heckles, Vince Cable was keen to emphasise that the government has no plans to reform strike laws and that it would only do so if pushed.

It may well soon be. Things have changed a great deal in the past thirty years. Unions only represent a minority of the workforce. Membership has almost halved – with many of the remainder close to retirement age. Less than thirty percent of workers still pay their dues and this falls to just sixteen percent in the private sector (largely concentrated in formerly nationalised industries). This isn’t surprising either: unions find it increasingly difficult to assert monopoly power in a modern market economy, so it makes ever less sense to be involved. The wage premium of comparable union over non-union members has fallen exponentially, especially for younger and private sector workers where it has almost disappeared.

Even those who are members are often inactive – the practice of deducting subs direct from a pay packet (which we believe should be stopped) and the odd leaflet are often the only reminders of a status of which they are semi-aware. This means that those who participate in strike ballots and electing union leaders are often only an extreme minority of the whole.

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