The real battle over union power will not be seen on the picket lines but in the courtroom


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The Independent Online

In his interview with The Independent, Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, Britain’s second largest union, sounds defiantly Churchillian about the Government’s proposed new Industrial Relations Bill: “We will fight it in the Commons with all our means. We will fight it in the House of Lords as well. If need be, we will seek judicial reviews, and we will take claims to Europe...” Well, if this is indeed the unions’ 1940, will Unison’s “few” also win in this field of human combat?

It is an odd battle at any rate. Just as hardly anyone under the age of 60 played much of a role or voted in the great European referendum of 1975, so relatively few can recall the days when the trade union “barons” were regarded as the Fourth Estate, a power capable of “holding Britain to ransom” and bringing down successive Labour and Conservative prime ministers, which they certainly did.

Not many more of us have direct experience of the battles of the 1980s, when the Thatcher government turned that tide back, sometimes involving the sort of hideous violence that we have recently been reminded about at Orgreave 30 years ago, as well as against the print unions at Wapping, and elsewhere. In due course, New Labour accepted the Thatcherite settlement on union power, and her laws remain on the statute book.

None of the contenders for leader and deputy leader of the British and Scottish Labour parties are promising to get rid of them. The union closed shop is as remote from today’s world as the music hall or the telegram.

Why, then, the Conservatives want to refight battles that they won decades ago is a slight puzzle. Days lost through strike action have hardly ever been lower, union membership is half its 1979 peak of about 13 million, covering only about a quarter of workers. In vast swathes of the private sector, union militancy is unknown. It is still felt in the public sector, especially on London’s Tubes and buses, but, even there, industrial action is invariably limited to 24- or 48-hour walkouts, and those never entirely solid. It makes commuters curse under their breath and bemuses tourists, but the economic impact is negligible.

Now, with Vince Cable and Liberal Democrat power also becoming something of a distant memory, Sajid Javid and his Tory colleagues want to get back to some traditional Tory union bashing. This is surely political, in the worst sense, aimed mostly at embarrassing Labour politicians and portraying them as being “in the unions’ pocket” if they dare to criticise the plans.

In the real world, as every shop steward and manager knows, a strike with a weak mandate will fail no matter what the law or the union rulebook says. It is almost as if David Cameron and his cabinet colleagues relish the idea of beating up a much-weakened and near-irrelevant union movement, like playground bullies. If Mr Prentis is to be believed, he is just as much up for a fight. It seems fairly futile, all things considered: the old saying about two bald men fighting over a comb comes to mind.

The real fight over union power, such as it is, will not be seen on picket lines but in courtrooms.

What constitutes a truly free trade union is not only a matter of employment law, but of human rights. The European Convention, for the moment incorporated in British law, is unclear about what restrictions on strike action are consistent with the rights of a trade union in a free society.

We might all be better off if Mr Javid and Mr Prentis, and their allies, came to a clearer agreement on what trade unions are for, and what action they can legitimately take. No one needs to be fighting on the beaches.