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Is this the end of trade unions in the UK?

2 million days lost to strike action in 2022, but does this spell the end of trade unions in the UK?

The UK lost approaching two million days to trade union strike action in 2022, nearly half a million days in November alone (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-64290162) as unions protest at wages failing to keep track with inflation. That’s a lot – in 2016 the total for the whole year was just 170,000 days lost, albeit that was an unusually quiet year for industrial action.

41 million days lost in 1979

So, 2022 was a mammoth year for strike action compared to 2016, but not a patch on 1979, when 41 million days were lost to  trade union strikes, 12 million days in September alone. This was the ‘winter of discontent,’ which ultimately led to the fall of James Callaghan’s labour government.

It might not seem like it, looking at the news, but the industrial scene in the UK now is very different to 1979, when trade union membership was far higher, and when union strike action contributed to wage inflation, and hence to overall inflation. Today’s strikes are a reaction to wages falling behind inflation already present, triggered by other factors.

Conservative government introduced new Trade Union laws in 1980s, with parallels to today

In the 1980s Mrs Thatcher’s conservative government took out some of the TUC’s teeth by forcing trade unions to prove ballots in favour of strike action, outlawing ‘flying pickets’ (where strikers of a particular industry would picket the entrances of workplaces unrelated to them) and requiring statutory notice periods prior to commencing strikes.

Today’s conservative government have gone further, introducing recent legislation permitting the use of agency workers to cover striking employees, and are now proposing more stringent balloting requirements and an obligation for unions to ensure continuing minimum service levels during industrial action.

40 years of declining Trade Union membership since Winter of Discontent

Public sympathy with trade unions after the 1970s ran very thin, and some argue that the decrease in union membership since owes a great deal to an over-extension of union influence during that period. Some of today’s more militant unions have failed to heed the lessons of their own past, and overt attempts to effectively orchestrate a modern national strike have alienated sections of the working public.

Businesses seeking solutions to troublesome unions

Small businesses, already vulnerable from the impact of the pandemic, have gone to the wall because of strike-induced lack of footfall, embattled CEOs of affected organisations will have taken note of P&O’s decision to rid itself of Mick Lynch’s RMT by dismissing the entire membership. Despite the public blustering of ministers, no action was taken against P&O for breaking every rule in the book – precedent has been set.

While some of the public still express sympathy with the strikers, the lack of logic in the union’s justification for the strikes is beginning to filter through. Taking the rail unions as an example, the majority of drivers are higher tax payers, their high salaries, generously limited hours, perks and final-salary pensions are the envy of a hospitality sector who have none of these things, but do have the added challenge of an absence of customers due to the strikes. Many will not survive.

Will 2023 – 2024 see a further steep slide in Trade Union membership?

Trade union membership fell off a cliff following the winter of discontent. Unions survived only by merging with other unions. A repeated dip in membership now may well spell the end of all but the very largest of unions in the very safest havens of the UK’s public sector. Unless today’s unions learn how to engage and collaborate with employers, their days may be numbered.

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