Keep rolling back union power: Charles Hanson calls for further curbs to outlaw strikes in essential services like public transport

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The Independent Online
IN THE 1970s it was well known that most British 'workers' were either on strike or at their tea-break while their 'managers' dozed in their offices after a heavy lunch. All the 'experts' told us that this state of affairs could not be remedied: even if the law was changed, the trade unions would take no notice of it. UK plc was going down the drain and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

Fortunately, Mrs Thatcher took absolutely no notice of these 'experts' and decided to reform trade union law radically, but step by step. She was aided and abetted by Norman Tebbit, as Secretary of State for Employment. His legislation - especially the Employment Act 1982 - was carefully drafted and quickly proved effective.

The result was that, apart from 1984, when the miners' strike was in full swing, the number of strikes and the number of days lost from strikes fell steadily. In 1992 and 1993, the figures reached record lows and Britain was virtually strike-free. The transformation seemed to be complete.

Now, once again, strikes - or rather the signalmen's strike - are front-page news. Jimmy Knapp looks and sounds like one of the original dinosaurs. Yesterday, the Trades Union Congress gave its backing to the signalmen and voted for a national demonstration. Are we going back to the 1970s, despite the election of Tony Blair as the leader of a new-look Labour Party and the appointment of John Monks as the general secretary of a relaunched TUC?

This week, John Edmonds wrote: 'Many politicians still do not understand that the trade union connection can be used to advantage.' But Tony Blair, who has caught the political mood of the country better than any of the General Council of the TUC, has shrewdly refrained from expressing whole-hearted support for the signalmen.

The truth is that public opinion is deeply ambiguous about trade union activity. Trade unions may sometimes be amazingly popular, as John Edmonds has claimed. But their capacity for creating new jobs is zero or negative, and if strikes were to snowball, and the Labour Party appeared once again to be in hock to the unions, the opinion poll rating could change very quickly.

In the past few weeks millions of people have been seriously inconvenienced, and no doubt numerous small businesses have been badly damaged by the dispute. And there is the possibility that it will drag on for many weeks yet. The airlines and the coach operators must be rubbing their hands, but most people will be fed up at the prospect of a return to the bad old days.

This fear, however, is probably overdone. The changes in the economy have been so fundamental since the 1970s that most employees are now exceedingly reluctant to strike. Many sectors in the economy are far more competitive than they used to be.

This means that employees at Ford, for example, understand that if they go on strike, potential customers will simply buy another make of car and when they return to work there will be fewer jobs than before. But in a few sectors, of which rail transport is one, there is still a monopoly element. Many people, especially in the London area, cannot get to work if the trains stop running, so the signalmen have the public over a barrel.

This ability to hold the public to ransom holds true for all those employees who provide us with other essential services such as gas, water and electricity. No one can do without these services, and although privatised, they are still monopolies.

Free collective bargaining, which could lead to an industrial dispute, sits very uneasily with the price caps imposed by the regulators in these industries. Some of the price caps have been too lax, and as long as the monopoly element persists, the consumer is helpless when a strike occurs.

Most countries have acknowledged that certain 'essential' services require particular protection against disruption, but our reforming government has not yet taken this step. There could be various reasons for this inaction. For instance, there have been few strikes in essential services since the infamous winter of discontent in 1978-79. It is also possible that officials and advisers have exaggerated the difficulties of reform.

Norman Fowler considered this problem but backed away after visiting the United States. Michael Portillo, newly installed in Caxton House, is known to be giving this proposal his attention.

Mr Portillo might like to note two things: first, he would be well advised to plug this particular loophole in the law quickly, so that an essential service can never again be disrupted as it has been over the past few weeks. Second, it must be done in a suitably British way, because our trade union law, depending as it does on legal immunities, is unique. The only useful lesson to be learnt from abroad is that most other countries have already acted.

Mrs Thatcher never claimed that her reform of trade union law was complete. She took another step when it became clear that another step was necessary. No doubt if Mr Portillo is bold enough to take this important step, he will be accused by some of union-bashing.

He should treat those critics with the disdain they deserve. Because the TUC is overshadowed by this dispute, the unions are bashing themselves, and a body which has lost five million members over the past 15 years can ill afford to do that.

A change in the law which would make industrial warfare impossible in essential services is clearly desirable and necessary. If the signalmen persuade Michael Portillo and his Cabinet colleagues to take this step, those who are cursing them may eventually come to see this dispute as a blessing in disguise.

The writer is senior lecturer in the Department of Economics, University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

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