Emily Carver: Ministers cannot allow trades union militancy to become the norm once again
The ongoing rail disputes are understandable, given that two years of on-off lockdown have interfered with customary wage settlement procedures. However, arming the unions with acquiescence would be insane. However, the public has heavily funded the railroads over this time, and they cannot continue to anticipate such generosity.
Revenue is down to less than 80% of pre-Covid levels, and usage patterns have altered dramatically, with expensive vacation travel and freight up and lucrative commuting and business travel severely down. As a result, there needs to be significant reorganization and modifications to working procedures. There is no way the train unions will be able to maintain the status quo while giving their member’s salary increases that far exceed inflation.
The rail strikes are just one aspect of a summer of unrest that also includes strikes or threats of strikes by bus drivers, teachers, certain NHS employees, civil officials, local government employees, and even barristers. Most of these groups fared fairly well during the lockdown, avoiding pay reductions and layoffs that were frequent elsewhere in the economy. Even under normal circumstances, they are primarily dependent on the taxpayer, directly or indirectly, and the taxpayer will be required to foot the majority of the bill for higher compensation settlements.
The summer of unhappiness in Britain is expected to heat up when the weather subsides. With projected settlements much below the anticipated level of inflation, which is anticipated to reach a peak of 11% this autumn, the government has declined to give public sector employees wage increases to combat inflation.
Ministers may have believed militant trade unionization was a defeated force, but recent events suggest otherwise and may necessitate harder measures. Following the RMT’s shutdown of the railroads last month, more walkout threats are expected to stutter the rail network later this month and in August.
Of course, rail strikes are merely the most conspicuous aspect of the ongoing industrial strife. Bus drivers, teachers, NHS personnel, civil officials, members of local governments, lawyers, and, god forbid, parking wardens have all threatened to go on strike in the upcoming weeks. Today, Royal Mail employees have joined them.
It’s possible that the government’s below-inflation pay increases—teachers, for example, would earn a raise of between five and 8.9 percent starting in September—are insufficient to appease the furious unions.
It’s important to note that it’s understandable that individuals are hoping for a salary raise after two years of on-off lockdowns, wage stagnation, and rising inflation. Both real pay and disposable income are declining.
Grant Shapps overstated the possibility that a two million public sector workers’ inflation-busting raise would make the UK “permanently poorer.” However, excessive pay raises may result in more borrowing, higher inflation-controlling interest rates, and a monetary contraction that may cause a recession. However, the government has to improve its ability to explain trade-offs.
Redundancy or changing working conditions will cost the taxpayer a lot of money. Giving in to the RMT’s demand for a guarantee of no mandatory layoffs for 2022, for example, might appear to be a low-cost decision in the short term. Still, on the railways – as it would be in the NHS or the civil service – such concessions could make it very difficult to implement necessary reform, which would have a long-term negative impact on productivity.
And every increase, whether in the form of greater taxes or a longer-term debt that must be serviced, adds to the taxpayer’s weight.
Then there’s the reality that employees in the public sector continue to earn more money overall and are guaranteed better pensions, working conditions, and vacation days than their colleagues in the private sector.
While public sector employees were largely shielded from pay cuts and job losses during the lockdown, those in low-paying jobs elsewhere, such as those in retail, hospitality, textiles, and food services, may not feel too kindly about forking over additional taxes to afford a ten or eleven percent pay increase for them. Instead, they may only receive what the market will bear.
At the same time, a sizable portion of the populace seems oblivious of how out of touch unions are with the current labor market and economy. The idea of joining a union runs counter to how many people, especially younger workers, perceive working life in the labor market, where there is such a wide variety of companies and little desire for (or likelihood of) a “job for life.”
The statistics, which demonstrate that trade unionism is at an especially low ebb, reflect this. Only 23.1% of workers in 2021 belonged to a union. Comparatively, this number was around 50% in 1979, and the year unions were at the height of their strength and influence. Any private sector unionization is primarily seen in sectors once part of the public sector.
Additionally, although there are undoubtedly a lot of poor union members, on the whole, they are much older and more affluent than the general workforce (41 percent of all union members in 2021 were aged 50 or over).
When nearly 2.5 million people are employed in the public sector, many of whom feel unfairly treated, making a case for restraint will never be popular. However, if the threat of strike action continues after salary agreements, the government may need to take more drastic measures.
It has various tools to achieve this, many of which are applied in good civilized nations like Germany, Denmark, Spain, Canada, and Australia. None of these would jeopardize the fundamental right to join a union.
Changes in the requirements for union recognition, restrictions on paid time off for union-related activities, minimum service agreements, strike bans in the civil service, mandatory arbitration in protracted disputes, and steps to disperse union power concentrations in the public sector are all possible.
Taking a harsh stance may not be popular with everyone, especially the loudest voices, but when almost all of us feel the pinch, militancy cannot be allowed to return to this country and hold the government and people to ransom.