Power-crazed organisations coercing government to enact policy against the will of the people and subverting democracy – so runs the popular left-wing critique of big corporations in the corrupt neoliberal world. There’s truth to it in places, but it’s major failing of many that they feel to see some of the same issues with unions.
Of course unions have played a vital role in securing hard-fought rights for workers – and have been on the right side of history many times (also arguably on the wrong side at times). This doesn’t mean they should be above criticism. They’re certainly not above throwing some pretty bold criticisms about themselves. Last month, Unison General Secretary Dave Prentis, describing planned Conservative changes to strike legislation, said: “These spiteful prosposals will deny millions of ordinary workers a voice at work.” And Mick Whelan, the General Secretary of train drivers’ union Aslef, went even further by claiming the plans “smack of Germany in the 1930s” when trade unionists were “rounded up, imprisoned and executed”.
This is hyperbole worthy of a fringe UKIP politician. The strike laws merely require unions to attain a 50% turnout in ballots for industrial action; 40% support for industrial action from all eligible voters in key public sectors; that members must opt in to paying unions’ ‘political levy’ paid to political parties; and allow employers to find temporary staff for strikes.
Far from ‘imprisonment’ or ‘execution’, these rules serve to empower individual union members against activist minorities or the power wielded by union bosses. They are – or should be – a matter of simple democracy, not left v right party politics. Contrary to all the scaremongering, unions and industrial action would still be legal; it’s just the mandate for them would be made higher, so, for example, the majority of the London bus network could not go down at the behest of just a sixth of London bus drivers. (The recent tube strikes, including the one today (August 6) and yesterday, voted on by three different unions, would still be legal under the new rules. Aslef for example saw a 81% vote in favour from a 97% turnout. The RMT’s vote would probably be legal because it was voted for by 92% of an unknown turnout.)
It all illustrates a hypocritical, arrogant strain of left-wing opinion which loudly champions liberalism and democracy, then cries bloody murder when these return results, or governments, they don’t like, typically dismissing Tory voters as brainwashed by the neo-liberal media. (There’s some equivalent but opposite opinion from the right it must be said.) Even this dismissive trope does not work for union votes as the vote merely concerns workers’ own livelihoods. So, if working conditions really are unfair, who better to judge that than the majority of those workers?
Union bosses’ professions to ‘representing their members’ are, at best, dubious when strikes are held which around three quarters of union members did not actually vote for. Of course such strikes are voted by the (usually clear) majority of those who voted, but they betray a presumptuousness that those who did not vote feel similarly. Writing in the Huffington Post, Paul Embery, London’s Regional Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, writes: “[…] it is perfectly reasonable, when extrapolating results of ballots for industrial action, to conclude that the votes cast are an accurate representation of the views of those balloted as a whole.”
It is not reasonable at all. I’d go so as far as to say it shows a contempt for democratic process. There is a qualitative difference between voting and not voting. If people don’t vote in a strike ballot, there is no strike. Striking is bold action against the status quo (or future status quo) therefore it should require clear majority approval. It stands to reason, then, that low turnouts should be treated as a sign of, at best, members’ indifference to a strike and, at worst, lack of support. Strikes are a vital democratic right, but they should not be taken lightly; support from those who deign to offer it should not be assumed.
All of it renders ridiculous the claim from Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC, that the government’s measures read “like something straight out of a George Orwell novel”. Ms O’Grady (and many others) would really do well to actually fucking read some Orwell, whose writing typically critiqued the evils of too much power in the hands of too few, not individuals’ right to make political choices.
None of this is even to mention all the others affected by strikes who do not get a say in them – the general public. After all, prospective strikers have a vested interest in industrial action. Not to say they are self-serving bastards – the vast majority I know and hear who have taken strike action have thought long and hard about the decision and merely want what they consider fair remuneration for their hard work. Nor am I arguing for one minute that workers from other professions should get an equal say in every public sector strike; that would create a kind of modern-day servitude to the taxpayer. But the facts remain that prospective public sector strikers stand to benefit from strikes at the expense of the (sometimes massive) inconvenience for millions of others who could not vote for them. So it behoves unions to have good support for the disruption.
This fundamentally differs from elections and referendums – the moderate or low turnouts from which are a typical comeback from unabashed union supporters when defending strikes’ (supposed) legitimacy – which everyone gets a vote in. If people do not vote in these and are unhappy with the result, then they only have themselves to blame.
Rather than always resorting to cheap jibes about ‘nasty Tories’, the left should take a long, hard look at the state of the unions.