Charlie Mullins: Trade unions look to, and live in, the past

We all love a bit of nostalgia. In our super-fast world of the internet, Apple watches and streaming of TV shows and movies, we all like to reminisce when things were a little simpler when information came from books and magazines, clocks only told the time and we were spoilt by the addition of a fourth TV channel.

However, looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses doesn’t mean things were better – unless of course you’re a union official.

These guys not only love the past but clearly live in it too. We escaped a rail strike last weekend, but it looks like it’ll be on the cards for 10 June when Network Rail workers who are members RMT Union evoke the spirit of the 70s and 80s with a 24-hour walk out.

A bank holiday strike would have been bad enough, but slap bang in the middle of the working week will just bring chaos to the thousands of people trying to get to work to earn an honest day’s pay and have a negative impact on the nation’s enterprising businesses.

I was due to welcome a long-standing supplier of mine from the north, who was planning a day in the capital meeting a number of his London-based clients, but the strike is causing him to scrap his trip. 

Seeing as we’re being a little nostalgic, to paraphrase the 1950s US TV series Naked City, “There are eight million stories in the city, this was just one of them”. From everyday commuters to those travelling by train to seal a deal, it won’t only be the train wheels that grind to a halt that day.

Thankfully, the government intends to change the law so a small number of trade union leaders can’t hijack the country by calling strikes that their members don’t feel strongly enough about to even cast their ballot.

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However, while I was full of praise for the new business secretary last week for his attack on red tape, I think Sajid Javid is being over generous, setting the bar at only 40 per cent of members being required to vote in favour of a strike.

And I certainly can’t see how any right thinking person would agree that it is reasonable for the economy to be dumped into turmoil by any number less than 40 per cent of those affected, in what is a straight yes-no vote.

This isn’t the same as the general election where there are multiple parties competing. In this type of race there are only two horses in the running – the one with the red jockey pushing for a strike and the one with the blue rider trying to keep his charge in the race.

Personally I believe that it would be fairer to have the level set at 50 per cent of all members to make a strike legal, but Javid’s further requirement for a minimum turnout of 50 per cent will at least mean that a majority of members must voice their opinion.

For too long union leaders have been able to mobilise a militant few to do their bidding, calling strikes on shamefully low levels of support. Now at least the economy will be safe from this kind of manipulation. And if union members can’t be bothered to cast their vote then it’s probably not an issue worth putting businesses and the wider economy at risk over.

What I suspect has happened over the years is that the many decent, non-militant members, who prefer to get on with their jobs, and have no philosophical axe to grind, have given up voting, as they know that a combination of the apathy of many and the zealousness of a few means there’s no point in them having their say.

I think what the unions are afraid of here is that under these new rules they run the real risk of calling a vote on strike action and losing it to the blue runner, in a straight two horse race. Now that would be embarrassing.

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