Today’s Times carries word of the predictable response (£) of Britain’s trades union leadership to Conservative proposals for what Transport Secretary Patrick McLaughlin calls “tough love” after the next election.
By introducing minimum thresholds for strike ballots – namely that 40 per cent of the eligible electorate cast a ballot and more than half of those actually support a strike – Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady claims that we will “effectively end the right to strike”.
Meanwhile Unison’s Dave Prentis argues that it shifts the balance of power “away from dedicated public servants” – public servants so dedicated, in fact, that Prentis and his comrades struggle to enthuse many of them about strike action, if low ballots are anything to go by.
Another particularly welcome measure is the abolition of the bar on agency workers covering strike shifts – it has always seemed fair to me that if a worker has the right to withdraw their labour an employer should have the right to replace it.
But whilst talking “tough love” to intransigent union barons plays well before a general election, the most potent remedy to the power of public sector unions lies in a logical extension of the public sector reform agenda.
The key to this is the UK’s ban on sympathy strikes, which have been wholly illegal since 1990. This prevents employees in the private sector who lack a just grievance against their own employer from walking out to add pressure to a dispute elsewhere.
This is the reason we no longer see industry-paralysing industrial action in the private sector. Without the means to pick national fights with the government of the day, unions in the private sector continue to perform valuable work on matters such as workplace benefits and welfare, dispute mediation, and legal advice – but don’t try to set industrial policy.
However in the public sector every teacher, to take one example, is employed by the state, which sets their terms of employment and (performance-related initiatives aside) decides their pay. This is why strikes can close thousands of schools – indeed, why we still have “national” strikes. This enables the unions to pick policy fights with the Government as well as bounce substandard teachers between institutions to maintain risible dismissal rates.
The question is, does the Government need to employ teachers at all? It should pay for them in state schools, certainly, but why does it need to directly employ them? What if instead we simply assigned schools a larger grant and allowed them to employ staff directly?
This would empower schools to negotiate directly with prospective employees on things like performance pay, as well as organically vary wages according to local conditions as in the private sector. The advent of private sector employment conditions would thus help to reduce the long-term pressure on public finances.
Unions would have to focus on genuine employer-employee issues, and in such an environment strikes would certainly become much rarer, leading to fewer vital school days lost for thousands of children. It is far easier to demonise a remote education secretary than an employer whom you work beside on a day to day basis, and far easier to understand a school’s financial limitations than those of the nation.
Moreover, unlike wholesale privatisation (which some would attempt to mischaracterise this as) by controlling the grant the Government would still be able to ensure that schools in poorer areas had the funds to attract the staff they needed.
If we genuinely believe in independent state schools then perhaps it’s time to let them do what even the smallest private business does: take responsibility for their own staff.