Dominic Raab is MP for Esher & Walton.
‘I decline utterly to be impartial as between the fire brigade and the fire,’ thundered Churchill in Parliament, 88 years ago this week, after a General Strike even Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald condemned. Today, union bosses hope to relive the spirit of ’26 with a national strike coordinated to paralyse schools, airports, London underground and other vital services. It’s time these unjustified and undemocratic strikes were outlawed to defend the hard-working majority.
Around 1.5 million workers went on strike in 1926, galvanised by sympathy for miners’ pay in a declining industry. The militants’ broader agenda was to usurp the economic strategy of an elected government. The strike failed, and led to a ban on secondary – ‘sympathy’ – strikes.
Today, union hot heads, led by Unite’s Len McCluskey, hope to corral similar numbers into strike action. Their real aim is to challenge the will of an elected government to deliver its policies – from deficit reduction to schools reform. Far from a collection of work-place grievances, this is an assault on democracy. And unlike MacDonald, today’s Labour leader, Ed Miliband, can’t disown the union barons. Because they own him.
The public pay the price. In 2011, the Treasury estimated a day of strike action would cost Britain £500 million. The last tube strike cost small businesses £300 million each day. There is disruption to parents where schools close, and chaos for holiday-makers with easyJet warning of airport disruption. Sometimes, the risks are worse still. Last month, a man died in a fire in Welwyn Garden City, during a fire strike. It’s not clear if the strike prevented the man’s life being saved, but Hertfordshire Fire Service said it delayed their response time.
There is no justification for these strikes. Most unions are formally striking over a 1 per cent pay freeze and pension reform across the public sector. No government relishes such decisions, but they are unavoidable given the state of the public finances – and nothing compared to the impact recession and austerity had on the 81 per cent working in the private or charitable sectors. Yet, the real motivation is political. McCluskey says there’s ‘no such thing as an irresponsible strike’. Mark Serwotka (of PCSU) opposes all austerity, arguing ‘not a single penny needs to be cut’. Unison’s Dave Prentis wants to scupper public sector reform and stop the EU signing a free trade deal with the US that would create thousands of jobs. A far cry from work-place disputes that are the proper business of the unions, this hardline socialist agenda has no respect for democracy.
Don’t take my word for it. Not one union striking this Thursday has the backing of a majority of its members. Unison mustered just 8 per cent support. This isn’t a workers’ uprising. It’s tyranny of the union barons.
Is the militancy of the 1980s returning? Not yet. But, 2011 saw the most working days lost to strikes since the poll tax riots. This renaissance was boosted by RMT’s victory in April at the European Court of Human Rights, which conceded the right to strike could allow sympathy strikes – despite the longstanding British ban.
If union boasts are believed, turnout this week could reach the level of 1926. 1.5 million are being pressed to strike, although a fraction voted for it. All union members come under intense pressure, even if they don’t want a strike. There is an inquiry underway into the bully-boy tactics of Unite during the dispute at Grangemouth oil refinery, while violence at an RMT picket in London ended up in court in 2011. It is difficult to assess the overall scale of intimidation, because the last government ended separate recording of industrial relations disputes in official statistics.
Trade unions serve an important role representing their members, and defending them in workplace disputes. But fat cat union bosses – many on six figure salaries – are behaving like the worst corporate barracudas, ignoring their members and holding the public to ransom.
These caviar communists wield enormous political clout too. Unite has given Labour £13.6 million since Ed Miliband became leader, Unison over £5million. In return, Unite wants a government department headed by a Cabinet member to represent unions. Miliband is already singing from Unite’s hymn sheet – having promised to raise the top rate of tax to 50p and introduce rent controls. The prospect of a sock-puppet Labour government, manipulated by the likes of Red Len, is a chilling thought.
Conservative Ministers recognise the threat. Francis Maude has lopped £17 million of taxpayer subsidy of union business. He plans to end union deduction of subs from civil service payrolls along with ‘rolling strikes’ that continue indefinitely.
We need to go further. There should be a ban on strikes without the backing of a majority of union members. Far from an attack on ordinary members, it would empower them and moderate leaders. Apologists for the militants point to the election of MPs and cry double standards. That’s pure chaff: everyone affected gets to vote in a general election, whilst the power to strike is unique to union bosses and decided by a tiny minority. If union leaders want equal treatment, let’s have referendums before every strike.
My proposal is a common sense safeguard to shield the public from union despots using strike powers as a licence to sabotage. It’s hardly right-wing: the public back this proposal by 3 to 1. So, I was delighted that the Prime Minister stated yesterday that this reform would be in the next Conservative manifesto. As Churchill said in 1926: ‘When you are in a fight of this kind … it it absolutely no use people pretending they do not know what side they are on’. Miliband has sided with the union barons. Conservatives must stand up for the hard-working majority.