The Conservative Party has a reputation for union-bashing, even amongst Conservatives. People too easily forget that Norman Tebbit used to boast about how he was a member of a union. The union movement is not something that, intrinsically, Conservatives should fear or oppose. Rather, we should embrace it and make it our own. Here's a start.
Unions are a important form of civil association, sitting alongside scout groups, football clubs, churches, youth groups, charities, friendly societies and many other of what Burke famously referred to as the "little platoons" but which it has become trendy to refer to as the "Big Society". Unions provide important and valuable services to their members and build social bonds. They are, in that sense, precisely the sort of organisation that Conservatives normally believe in encouraging.
Unions originated in a way that arch-free-market Conservatives normally laud. When nineteenth century workers found their salaries kept down by the monopsony (sole-buyer) power of local employers (e.g. the only big mill in town) and their working conditions dangerous or unnecessarily unpleasant, they did not get legislatively-imposed minimum wages or, in all instances, have the law changed to impose health-and-safety requirements upon everyone. Instead, workers combined into unions to offset the monopsony power of employers, securing higher wages and better working conditions through collective bargaining. They exercised precisely that sort of power-of-people-in-action that Conservatives say they prefer to the knee-jerk resort to legislation and regulation.
If you are the sort of market-believer that favours competitive markets, you will believe that the monopsony power of those employers was welfare-reducing and that it was efficiency-enhancing for it to be offset by collective bargaining. If you are more Austrian and thus more sympathetic to monopoly as a legitimate expression of the Market in action, why would you object any more to monopoly supply of computer software designers (workers) than to monopoly supply of computer software (goods)?
It is, of course, the case that some unions specifically sponsored a political movement – Labour – that competes with the Conservative Party. But there is no intrinsic reason there should not be Conservative-supporting trade unions. It is also, of course, the case that in the 1970s in the UK the unions acted as a source of alternative political authority, competing with Parliament. But there is nothing per se illegitimate about that – the increased political authority of unions at that time was a reflection of the failure of politics at the centre. Once proper authority was re-established at the centre, with Thatcher, the political role of the unions was returned to a healthier condition.
We should not besmirch the political role of unions or suggest it is in any way illegitimate per se. Union leaders were Conservative heroes in Poland in the early 1980s, as they struggled against Communist oppression. Unions have been important in many political and revolutionary struggles against oppression around the world, of which Conservatives now approve. Even today, we should hope that labour movements in Iran or Burma might be a driver of political change.
There are, however, two key problems with the modern union movement in Britain. First, strike laws are anachronistic and an ineffective and ill-directed tool. Contrary to popular belief, no "right to strike" has ever been acknowledged under British law. A strike is a breach of contract and inciting a breach of contract is an offence unless one has specific legal protection. Britain's strike laws (quite rightly) do not grant any "right to strike". Instead, they protect recognised unions from being sued for inciting the breaches of contract they do when they organise strike action, setting out rules for when unions must be recognised and rules for matters such as balloting for strike action.
The concept of striking is a necessary weapon to partner collective bargaining – the workers allow their union representatives to negotiate on their behalf and agree to all strike together to enforce their demands. And in some industries, perhaps particularly where there are large numbers of fairly homogeneous workers, it will be to the benefit of management as well as workers for bargaining to be collective – e.g. because it is much cheaper for management to have just one negotiation on behalf of thousands of workers rather than thousands of individual negotiations.
But the idea of imposing collective bargaining upon firms that do not want it is terribly anachronistic. The concept belongs to the age of local mill-owner and mine-owners where if you didn't work there you didn't work anywhere, or to the age of nationalised monopolies. Today we have much more effective and structured means of countering anti-competitive power and practices by firms, using competition law. Most anti-competitive behaviour or excessive market power of employers should be addressed directly by competition authorities. Recognising this, labour relations policy has tended to make it harder and harder to have a legal strike – probably now too difficult; after all, striking is the necessary partner of collective bargaining. If collective bargaining is permitted, so must be striking. Instead of ever-more burdensome striking rules, in my view the way things should work in respect of unions is:
a) If an employer is officially designated by competition authorities (say the OFT) as having monopsony power in a labour market, and the OFT has not taken countervailing action but instead leaves the official designation, that firm should automatically become subject to a requirement to recognise unions, whereupon strike balloting rules and protections will apply. (It should also be subject to various equalities legislation that should not apply otherwise, but that is a subject for another article.) Note that this could apply to a public sector employer as well as in the private sector.
b) Some employers may choose themselves to recognise unions for the purposes of collective bargaining. If they do that, then strike balloting rules and protections will apply.
c) Other firms should be under no obligation to permit collective bargaining, and strikes in such sectors will be simple breaches of contract for which injured parties will be permitted to sue.
This does not, of course, mean that there would not be unions in other sectors. Just that they would not be permitted to incite strikes.
The second key problem with unions in Britain is that, qua service-providers, the unions service provision sector has become highly concentrated and probably monopolistic. In other words, there are too few unions and too little choice for workers over to which union they should belong. We should remedy this by applying competition law more vigorously to the union movement. Just as we would regulate or even break up large service-providing firms that were monopolists, so we should seek to regulate or break up overly-large monopolistic unions, encouraging competition between them.
Such reforms would create a union movement with more choice for workers, focused more upon the friendly-society-type services that unions are excellent in providing, and as a focus for social and political combination (with a choice of such combination, hopefully including an option of Conservative-supporting unions for members to belong to), and with a the union role in collective bargaining focused upon those sectors in which employers have un-countervailed monopsony power. That would be a healthy and communitarian union movement, to be encouraged as a key part of the Big Society.