The old ones are the best, they say. And I’m as nostalgic as the next person. But, really, when the TUC’s annual conference opened in Manchester a couple of weeks ago, the torrent of cliché-ridden and hackneyed media coverage was even worse than usual.
Immediately we were treated to the full repertoire of phrases that must, by law apparently, accompany any coverage of the unions. Their leaders are all “dinosaurs”, it is said. They seek to “hold the country to ransom”. We all have to brace ourselves for another “winter of discontent”.Well, honestly. I know we’re all supposed to be environmentalists these days, but is it necessary to recycle old material quite as blatantly as this? Most of these articles could have been written – and were written – at any time in the past 20 years or so.
So what is the truth about British trade unionism, and how is it likely to make its presence felt over the next few months? First, the context. Not that you would know it from the tone and thrust of the reporting, but Britain’s unions are far less powerful than they were a generation ago. From a peak of around 13 million members in 1979, affiliated trade unionists now number just over half that figure. Great names from the history of trade unionism – the Transport and General Workers Union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union – are no more, swallowed up by merger after merger.
More significantly, employment law reform, introduced by the last Conservative government and left more or less intact by the outgoing Labour one, has restricted the unions’ room for manoeuvre considerably.
Proper ballots have to be held before workers can be called out on strike. And if there is a problem with the ballots, as happened at British Airways recently, the employer is able to halt any proposed industrial action.
The truth is that unions are now only to be found in large numbers in the public sector. In the private sector, only around one in eight employees is a union member (the figure is around one in three in the public sector). Extended strike action is a thing of the past. It is almost impossible to persuade union members that their interests are well served by going out on strike for week after week – hence the 48-hour option favoured by the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the outfit led by the voluble Bob Crow, who seems able to cause difficulties for the London Underground network whenever he likes.
Cause difficulties, but not, it should be noted, bring to a halt. Even on strike days, plenty of tube trains run. Not every worker is in the union, and not all union members observe the strike. This fact gives the lie to all the “winter of discontent” talk. There are distinct limits to union power.
But what will happen next? Firefighters in London have already voted for strike action. Others may follow. The government’s programme of cuts, to be outlined in the Comprehensive Spending Review on 20 October, may provoke more industrial action.
But let us try and keep all this so-called “militancy” in perspective over the next few weeks and months. Nearly all of us are going to keep going to work. Life, and business, and public sector work, will go on. Not for the first time, or the last, it will pay not to take everything you read in the newspapers too seriously.