Union Bashing won’t win for conservatives
The next Tory leader will face a combination of soaring inflation and social unrest not seen since the 1970s. British workers planning or threatening to walk out include lawyers involved in criminal trials, teachers, young doctors and nurses and workers at Britain’s largest container port. Telecom workers and postal workers voted to strike. To complicate matters, there was also a waste picker walkout.
This is a battle with high stakes both economically and politically. If the Conservatives want to win the next election, they will have to find an approach to strikes that convinces a majority of workers (both unionized and non-unionized) that the government has their best interests at heart. This will mean not only the baton of legislation – guaranteeing minimum levels of service on critical infrastructure like railways in the event of a strike – but also some carrots, in the form of economic growth, productivity improvements and the prospect of higher wages.
Such legislative action would not violate the fundamental right to strike, as Lynch claims. France, Italy, Spain and other countries also have minimum service provisions, and workers continue to strike. Lynch has an interest in constructing a narrative of a country where the democratic right to withhold work is under threat – which encourages other unions to join the strike.
“What we’re seeing are not just disputes over terms and conditions, but the rise of a political agenda again,” says Richard Short, co-founder and director of Union Blue, a think tank and of centre-right pressure rooted in the idea of moderate unionism. With a Tory party in danger of losing its majority in 2019 and a Labor party that hasn’t capitalized on that disarray, he argues that Lynch and some other union bosses see a vacuum that they’re trying to exploit, whether it serves or not their workers.
Despite all this bluster, the threat of a general strike is exaggerated. A general strike refers to a large section of the unionized workforce holding back labor to force concessions on wages or conditions. In 1926, some 3 million union members stopped work for nine days. Strikes during the original “Winter of Discontent” – in the fall and winter of 1978-79 – were ineligible. It is unlikely to be done now.
Even though Britain is more unionized than Germany, France, the United States or Japan, it is far from the levels of unionization of the late 1970s. Some 6.4 million British employees – a just over a fifth (23.1%) of the workforce – were unionized in 2021, the lowest rate since 1995 and less than half of what it was in 1979. The majority of today’s unionized workers, however, are in the public sector, which gets to the heart of the matter for the next government.
Not only are these workers facing deep structural changes (e.g. remote work affecting travel) and crushing backlogs due to the pandemic, but the surging cost of living has hit real wages hard. And all of this comes at a time when, relatively speaking, real wages have already been stagnant for more than a decade and labor markets are exceptionally tight, notes Connor MacDonald, director of economic policy research at the Policy Exchange think tank. .
The combination of factors created the perfect storm, fueling frustration and giving union leaders leverage.
Truss’s approach of channeling Tory heroine Margaret Thatcher – who dramatically reduced the strength of powerful unions – will appeal to Tory members who vote for the next leader. It is also an unfinished business. Despite a 2019 manifesto promise, it was only in June that Boris Johnson decided to introduce a series of measures aimed at limiting the ability of unions to disrupt essential services. (Truss promised to pass these laws within its first 30 days.)
But if she wins the race for prime minister, she will need more in her toolbox. His plan to pay civil servants differently depending on where they live (and potentially extend this to public sector wages more broadly) has been mooted in the past. It’s a worthy debate, but it will put her on a collision course with the unions. Nor will it bring her the magnitude of change she needs.
Ultimately, Truss will have to find a way to deliver both better public services and real wage growth for those working in the public sector. It will require deep public service reforms, which Johnson talked about (when Dominic Cummings was his adviser) but never succeeded. A change in the way services are structured and managed will be more likely to succeed if it involves extensive consultation with unions who will have to accept that trade-offs are needed.
In other words, the conservatives must stand up to the unions but also make peace with them. It may seem counter-intuitive, but this kind of pragmatism is rooted in the party’s past.
It is often forgotten that Thatcher, who was a member and supporter of the Conservative Unionists (CTU), advocated moderate unionism and even encouraged Conservatives to become union leaders. Although there is reflexive anti-unionism in parts of the party, there has also been a rapprochement between conservatives and unions over the years. David Cameron became the first Tory to address the TUC conference and appointed an envoy to help restore union relations.
In a 2012 article, Tory MP Robert Halfon urged Tories to build on those roots, noting that there were several million more Tory voters among union members than party members and that two had many interests in common. It’s a message that seems even more relevant given the working class, former Labor voters who made up Johnson’s majority in 2019 and the government’s determination to rebalance Britain’s economy.
Of course, there will always be tension here. The right to suspend labor is only effective if it is likely to cause difficulties for employers. This is why British Airways has settled its dispute with check-in staff at Heathrow Airport who wanted a 10% pay cut introduced during the pandemic to be reversed. And there are times when workers’ rights must be respected. Indeed, when P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers without consultation and hired agency staff well below the UK minimum wage in their place, the government reacted to public outrage, tightening the laws and forcing P&O to compensate the workers.
But the right to strike must be weighed against the interests of the wider community. Understanding that this balance is essential to having a functioning state and a thriving economy is why Thatcher’s reforms have been maintained by Conservative and Labor governments ever since. The next Conservative leader will have an infinitely small window to convince workers in the public and private sectors. Putting new limits on industrial action will be the easy part.
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Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe.
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