No fighting on the streets just yet
Our over-excitable media are again whipping up concern about a wave of public sector union militancy in the wake of planned cuts. Back in March there was concern about a “spring of discontent” – which didn’t happen – and now it is a possible autumn or winter of strikes. With the TUC’s annual conference upon us, all the old stories about the seventies are gleefully dragged out to scare the children: three day weeks, “Fester Square” in London’s West End, and unburied dead in Liverpool.
I doubt that anything like this is going to happen. That pantomime villain Bob Crow is talking up action on the street, and his RMT continue their annoying guerrilla raids on Londoners’ patience, but I doubt whether unions can organise concerted action given their very disparate interests and the existence of legislation restricting political or sympathetic strikes. The TUC’s Brendan Barber is notably calmer, emphasising that we are currently in a “phoney war” and that no real cuts have yet been announced.
Mr Barber is aware that trade union power is overwhelmingly concentrated in the public sector, where 56% of workers are in unions. Only 15% of private sector workers are unionised, and if we knock out those ex-public sector areas such as utilities, the railways and British Airways, the private sector rate falls to well below 10%. And it falls year on year, to the TUC’s chagrin. As TUC leader, while deploring public spending cuts, he has to think about the wider union movement. Across the economy, relatively low-paid women now have a higher unionisation rate than men and are less sanguine about taking costly strike action than Mr Crow’s well-paid, largely male, train drivers.
For if public sector unions are able to use their muscle to stop cuts, the likely result is that there will be higher taxes and/or higher interest rates, which will lead to a new round of private sector job losses. Or there will have to be truly massive cuts in other areas of government spending, most obviously welfare benefits. In those circumstances it is likely that the 73% of the working population who are not in unions, plus the many millions of pensioners and other beneficiaries of the welfare state, will be less than enamoured of leaders such as Mr Crow.
The fear would be of a backlash that would lead to the sort of anti-union legislation argued for by Boris Johnson, Policy Exchange and the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Outright bans on strikes by public transport workers and other key areas might become more likely, or there might be requirements for a much higher proportion of the workforce voting for a strike. Brendan Barber knows that this would be the beginning of the end for unions in some areas of the public sector where RMT-style tactics aren’t an option, and would put the kibosh on any recovery in private sector unionism.