From the Observer 9 August 2015
This island race was once admired for its stiff upper lip, blitz spirit and sheer pluck. Unfortunately none of these admirable qualities can survive a strike. If London Underground stops for 24 hours, the press does not keep calm and carry on. It goes into a funk, as the Telegraph proved last week when it lost what self-control it possessed and screamed: “Let’s sack the lot of them”
The late socialist historian EP Thompson would not have been surprised. He chronicled how, throughout history, the English upper-middle class has always turned vindictive when the lower orders emerge from the underground and get ideas above their station.
After demonstrators smashed the windows of gentlemen’s clubs in 1886, a correspondent to the Times opined: “When there is a riot in any kennel of hounds, the huntsman and whips do not wait to get the special orders of the master, but proceed to restore order at once.”
Looking back through this and many another well-bred complaint from the Victorian age onwards, Thompson noted a common assumption: “It is the business of the servant class to serve,” and their “superiors will only notice their services when they cease”.
Thompson was writing in 1970, the start of a decade of convulsive industrial militancy. The lights went out, the power went off, schools, hospitals and pits closed, and two governments fell. An average of 12.9m working days were lost. Compare that with 2014, when a mere 788,000 went. As for trade union membership, it stood at 6.4 million employees last year – half the number of the 1970s.
Overwhelmingly, today’s union members are public sector workers (only 14% of the private sector is unionised), and increasingly they are old. Trade unionism is neither the threat nor the blessing it once was. Yet one 24-hour closure of the London Underground provoked apoplexy, even when, as my Spectator colleague Isabel Hardman plausibly suggested, the first day of the Trent Bridge test was “more disruptive to British business”.
It is not as if there are not reasons to join unions today. Tube drivers may not provoke your sympathy. They can earn £50,000, although they are not striking about money but about being forced by their managers to work through the night – a demand that might make the most compliant workers militant.
But what of the lowly workers at Pizza Express? Recognise their services by putting a tip on your credit card and Pizza Express deducts an 8% handling charge, which it pockets tax free. Unions are planning protests outside Pizza Express outlets on Monday, and I certainly won’t be eating there again. (When I pay a tip to waiters, I expect it to go to waiters, not the company’s profits.) But if Pizza Express workers wanted to take matters further – and they seem to me to have every reason to do so – they would soon find it next to impossible to strike.
During the coalition, foolish leftists denounced the Liberal Democrat as sellouts. They are now discovering what a real Conservative government can do. In “important” public services, unions will only be able to call a strike if 50% of members eligible to vote turnout, and 40% of those eligible, vote in favour of a strike. Half the MPs in parliament would be on the streets if these stringent terms applied to them, but the double standard does not trouble our leaders.
I doubt even the Conservatives could designate pizza parlours a vital national service. If Pizza Express workers want to protest, however, they will find that the government still insists that all workers must appoint overseers for picket lines.
They must give the police their names, which would deter many from stepping forward. They must also give their employers and the police 14 days notice. They must tell them everything they propose to do to, down to the names of Facebook pages and Twitter feeds advancing their case. If they do not, Pizza Express could take the union to court. If they get past all the legal hurdles, and actually walk out, the government proposes that Pizza Express should be free to bus in agency workers to break the strike.
On and on it goes. The government may hit unions’ general funds by ending the automatic deduction of subs from wages. It will hit unions’ political funds to limit their ability to help the Labour opposition. Reading the government’s proposals, I imagined Conservative party researchers going through every aspect of a trade union’s organisation and working out how to wreck it.
The severity of the assault makes me wonder why so many unions are backing Jeremy Corbyn. It is not just that he has planted kisses on the backsides of half the tyrannies on the planet: including the posteriors of an Iranian regime, which persecutes its own trade unionists along with women and religious minorities; Putin and his kleptomaniac and irredentist Russian nationalist friends; Gaddafi, after his own people had executed him, and the Chavez gang, which somehow managed to reduce oil-rich Venezuela to penury.
Worse than the tyrannophilla, from a practical point of view, is that Corbyn does not have a chance of winning the 2020 general election. And if you think five years of unconstrained Tory government is bad, picture what they could do with 10.
I had thought that, with the leadership of Unite in the hands of leathery old Leninists, who had dedicated their lives to denouncing “bourgeois reformist parties”, the far left was just living its dream of taking over the Labour party. But union workers tell me that it is as much pressure from members as directions from the top that is driving union support for Corbyn.
If he wins, the activists must live with the consequences. Even if he loses, they must change. Unions will have to go out into Britain’s atomised workforce where people no longer are congregated in factories, but spread across contracted out agencies. They will have to recruit new members and persuade old members to carry on paying their dues. They will have to stop being led by old men who do not understand the Britain they want to change, and have leaders who can talk to the country – most notably, in my view, women leaders.
If they don’t, the 2010 to 2025 Conservative administrations will be remembered as the governments that finally whipped trade unions so hard they could never leave their kennels again.