When Margaret Thatcher took on the unions she saw it as more than an industrial relations dispute. In part she saw it as an essential way of unlocking the UK’s economic potential, but more than that it was about democracy. For her the unions represented the unaccountable power of the most militant workers. Closed shops restricted the freedom of others to work outside union parameters. The lack of secret ballots opened the door to intimidation and denied workers an equal say in their practices. Secondary picketing allowed disputes to spiral into broader political fights.
For Thatcher the battle against the unions was in the same spirit as her deregulation of the City. It was about breaking up cartels which could control workplaces and constrain growth. Now the unions occupy a very different place, and further reforms lack the same principled coherence.
Unions no longer wield the power they once did, largely because Thatcher succeeded in her mission. They are largely confined to the public sector and a few industries previously inside it. Strike action is narrower in scope and requires much more, clearer support than before. The government is facing increasing strike action because it has failed to settle specific disputes with each sector. This is not a revolutionary turn, much as it suits both parties to cast it in that light.
As a result, the proposals to further curb strike activity, as announced in parliament yesterday, simply look like skewing the playing field. The government finds itself in a bind, unable to satisfy workers’ demands but equally unable to starve them out like Thatcher did to the miners. You can’t stockpile ambulance rides, so the government is back to restricting workers’ ability to walk out. To do this it intends to legislate for minimum service levels, and to make unions and workers responsible if those are not met, opening up those walking out to legal liabilities.
This lacks the clear thinking of previous union reforms. The right to withdraw your labour is a fundamental one and collective bargaining can be seen as a key part of the market at play. These are both things that Tories should see as essential liberties, even if they rankle at their current effects. While they might instinctively side with the bosses, Conservatives should also baulk at the overbearing power of the state. The Conservative respect for individual freedom should include some respect for collective action.
There is little Conservative in legislating to coerce people into work. When Thatcher tamed the unions, it was because she saw their factions coercing people out of it, having an outsized impact on the labour movement. Subsequent reforms have maintained this idea, for example ensuring that unions act with a majority of their members rather than slim margins in votes with a poor turnout. If Rishi Sunak wants to amend union law he should be asking himself why he would go further than Thatcher – the answer, it seems, is more about current disputes than higher principles.