Leading Article: Flogging the dead carthorse

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IN a message to the 124th annual conference of the TUC, the Rt Rev John Jukes, Auxilliary Bishop in Southwark, has called rather plaintively on the Government to stop 'bashing the unions'. It is a sign of the times. Historically, the trade union movement was portrayed by the cartoonist Low, as a carthorse: stubborn, slow moving, a little stupid perhaps, but above all immensely powerful.

More worldy ministerial advisers than the bishop might have put the issue with great cynicism yesterday: There is little to be gained by further flogging a dead horse. If the TUC is not dead, it is possibly in terminal decline after 13 years of maltreatment by Conservative administrations. Moreover, the emergence of a handful of super-unions, well able to handle their own affairs and to offer their members the material benefits associated with service unionism, makes it hard to see the purpose of a large and costly central union bureaucracy.

Some of the more optimistic delegates gathered at Blackpool are taking consolation from the fact that the Secretary of State for Employment, Gillian Shephard, is demonstrably bored with the plans for further union reforms inherited from her predecessor, Michael Howard, who delighted in reviving the union bogey. She will push ahead with his proposals to introduce greater freedom for workers to join the union of their choice and to render more difficult the system of 'check off' (under which employers deduct union dues from workers' pay packets), then turn her mind to questions of industrial training and job creation.

Other union optimists point out that John Major does not have Margaret Thatcher's visceral loathing of the unions. But this is to miss the point. Mr Major and Mrs Shephard can afford to take a relaxed view of union power. The crucial battles were fought a decade ago by Baroness Thatcher and Lord Tebbit, while the underlying trends are against any large revival of union power.

Union membership has declined from 12 million to 7.75 million over the past decade. More than 53 per cent of working people were in unions in the early Eighties. Today the figure is less than 38 per cent. But this conceals an even more disturbing pattern for union organisers. Fewer than one in three of those who work in the private sector are now members. The density of union membership has been maintained artifically by the refusal of many public employers - local government, education and health service managers, and those who administer the Civil Service - seriously to challenge union power. (In local government, many Labour administrations go to the limit of the law in their efforts to support union membership.)

It is hard to believe that public sector unionism will have such an easy ride in the coming years. The Prime Minister is not a crusading anti-unionist, but he is determined to erode the importance of national wage agreements. He is also committed to giving schools and hospitals new powers to control their own affairs. And he wishes to extend the concept of competitive tendering from local government to Whitehall, and to the management of prisons and other institutions. Such an agenda is incompatible with the survival of unreconstructed trade unionism of the kind seldom found nowadays in the

private sector.