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Union dinosaurs will stop the economy, not just the trains

Written by Charlie Mullins on Wednesday, 12 January 2022. Posted in Politics, Insight, Analysis

We all love a bit of nostalgia. In a world of 5G, smart phones and watches, streaming TV series and video calling, we all like to reminisce when things were a little simpler.

Union dinosaurs will stop the economy, not just the trains

We all love a bit of nostalgia.  In a world of 5G, smart phones and watches, streaming TV series and video calling, we all like to reminisce when things were a little simpler, when information came from books and magazines, clocks only told the time and if you wanted a face-to-face chat with someone you had to go and meet them!

However, looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses doesn’t always mean things were better, unless, of course, you’re a union official. These guys not only love the past but clearly live in it too.  The latest re-boot of Jurassic Park, where dinosaurs from the distant past are brought back to life, stars the RMT union, which have brought back strikes to the London Underground.

Evoking the spirit of the 1970s and 80s, its members working on the Central and Victoria Lines downed tools this month and plan to strike every weekend on the Night Tube, on Friday and Saturday nights, through to June. The strikes are over the introduction of night time rotas and are going ahead despite assurances there will be no job losses, workers can swap night shifts and the amount of shifts will be fair and reasonable. In normal times, (remember them?) a weekend night time strike may just seem minor with the union’s flexing their muscles with the threat of widening industrial action to more of the tube system on other days of the week.  

Thing is, we’re not in normal times and a weekend strike just goes to prove how out of touch the unions are. Perhaps, though, they are not out of touch, which makes their actions even more disgraceful. The night time economy has taken a real kicking from the pandemic, bouncing between restricted services to full closures. And just as there is a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel with Boris Johnson pretty much ruling out future lockdowns and the ongoing vaccine roll out, the transport unions are pulling the rug from under London’s bars, restaurants and theatres. Many of these businesses have been on a precipice for nearly two years and if these strikes continue it won’t just be the trains’ wheels that grind to a halt.

It’s time that the government looked again at the laws for industrial action.  Last updated in 2016 when Sajid Javid was Business Secretary, it prevents a small number of trade union leaders from hijacking the country by calling strikes that their members don’t feel strongly enough about to even cast their ballot.

The legislation states that industrial action ballots must attract at least 50% turnout and the majority must vote yes for action to be lawful. So, if 100 workers are eligible to vote and only 49 actually turn out to cast their ballot, workers can’t go on strike even if all 49 of them vote in favour. The government ramped this up further for workers whose role involves the delivery of public services, such as public transport.  Trade unions must meet an additional 40% support from all workers eligible to vote as well as reaching the 50% turnout. That means that if 100 workers are eligible to vote at least 50 must turn out and at least 40 must vote in favour. This was a welcome change as, for too long, union leaders were able to mobilise a militant few to do their bidding, calling strikes on shamefully low levels of support. 

However, while it was thought that this would insulate the economy somewhat from the manipulation of the unions, this latest batch of strikes proves that it’s the trump card they are still more than willing to pull out. This latest action prompts the thought that the thresholds need to change again and there actually needs to be a clear majority vote.

Strikes have never solved anything and often build resentment from the public – the exact group those taking industrial action are often looking to gain support from. If the unions had to go into negotiations without the strike card in their pocket, they’d have to be savvier in their approach.  They’d argue it would take away their bargaining power, but it should actually make them adapt and work harder.

As we all know, the world has changed.  The unions have to change too.

About the Author

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins

Charlie Mullins is founder of the UK’s largest independent plumber, Pimlico Plumbers and we're lucky to have him as our go-to guy on everything from growth to government.

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