Summertime Blues: Unions, strikes and the law in 2022
- This summer is seeing an upsurge in strikes and threats of strikes, with the number and scale of disputes being markedly higher than in the pre-Covid period.
- However, these disputes are concentrated in the public sector, or those parts of the private sector that were once nationalised industries, where union membership remains high. Across the workforce as a whole, unionisation has fallen to less than half the rate in the 1970s.
- Trade unions’ power depends on their special status in law, which provides immunity from damages if strikers follow appropriate procedures. The Thatcher and Major governments tightened the conditions under which strike action could take place.
- These are not the only reasons for declining union power and influence. Globalisation and structural change have also weakened unionism in many countries. Within the UK increasing workforce diversity has undermined unionism, while higher levels of employee qualifications and various forms of employment regulation to protect workers have reduced the appeal of collective bargaining.
- The current round of disputes is unlikely to lead to a continuing seventies-style wage–price spiral, but government concessions to union militancy will add to public spending and mean that tighter monetary discipline will need to be imposed, with negative consequences for the rest of the economy. They will also make necessary public sector reform more difficult.
- Should the government wish to challenge union militancy more aggressively, there is a range of options, from selective strike bans and compulsory arbitration to reshaping public services, which could be adopted without compromising the fundamental freedom to join a trade union. However, this would require a coherent strategy rather than ad hoc responses made in the course of a febrile ‘summer of discontent’.