Opinion: The Trade Union and Workplace Reforms Debate

The issue of the unions and strikes is back in the political arena.

I have lost count of the number of times in recent years that the Tories have called for participation thresholds in industrial action ballots before they can be considered legal. Indeed I commented on similar Tory proposals for Lib Dem Voice back in 2011. This time the figure they are proposing is 40%.

Once again they are focusing on the public sector; this is clearly an attempt to throw some red meat to their supporters.

It is too early to say if this going to be a big issue in the coming General Election. The winter of discontent is a distant memory, and union membership has fallen dramatically since its height in the late 1970s. However all democrats should be opposed to measures that restrict the rights of working people to withdraw their labour.

The Lib Dem policy of employee involvement at work is well established and I would like to see this promoted vigorously by party spokespeople, not least because if employees had a genuine say in how their workplace was run there would be less conflict.

The response of union leaders is interesting though. They have criticised the Tory call for the 40% threshold by pointing out that many politicians are elected on low turnouts. The irony is that the majority of union leaders themselves are elected by very small proportions of their members often on the recommendations of local officials. In my own union turnouts are regularly below 20%.

If unions are to remain relevant they need to look at improving participation in their own organisations, recruiting in new areas and becoming much less tribal in their political affiliations. Failure to address these issues makes them an easy target for the Tory attack dogs.

* David is a member of Horsham and Crawley Liberal Democrats

Read more by or more about or .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Nick Collins 12th Jan '15 - 11:43am

    Well said, that man.

  • If unions are to remain relevant they need to look at improving participation in their own organisations, recruiting in new areas and becoming much less tribal in their political affiliations. Failure to address these issues makes them an easy target for the Tory attack dogs.

    These are all difficult because employers and the government collude to make unionisation and increasing membership more difficult, hence also why it is unreasonable to demand less tribalism. Tribalism is inevitable when at least one party of government is explicitly, presently and historically, anti union. Until the Tories embrace the trade union movement and take the side of unions against employers on occasion while supporting workers rights then unions will always be tribal anti-Tory.

  • Nick Collins 12th Jan '15 - 12:28pm

    Being anti-Tory is not tribalism; it is the beginning of political wisdom.

  • David Warren 12th Jan '15 - 1:21pm

    Thanks for the comments.

    @g My point was that modernising and becoming more democratic would make the unions more of a force.

    Yes times are tough for them but their leaders in the main seem happy with the ‘comfort’ zone they find themselves in.

    @Joe The political funding regime in those unions that affiliate to Labour is absurd. I have to pay the political levy to get a vote on continued affiliation even though I favour a new approach.

    Political fund ballots are effectively a referendum with a loaded question.

    Interestingly one of the most successful unions in recent years in terms of membership growth is the RMT who don’t affiliate to Labour.

  • Julian Tisi 12th Jan '15 - 1:22pm

    In many other countries, trade unions are not affiliated to any particular party. This gives them leverage to influence governments of all persuasions – not just governments of the party they’re financing.

  • A good, short and to the point piece. I find myself in agreement with David.

    I think also for the unions to remain relevant their leadership have to become better communicators and so present a more coherent message to the public. For example, I have time for the firemen’s pension demands (retire at 50) because of this.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Jan '15 - 2:11pm

    Joe Otten
    ‘…the problem of union militancy.’

    Sorry but what union militancy? The Miners’ strike was thirty years ago and since then, the unions have had less and less influence. We cannot continue the line of ‘union militancy’ when the public sector is being challenged, re- organised and downsized at breakneck speed. Yes and the Lib Dems are complicit in this too – hence our low levels of support among key workers.

    The unions I would suggest are mild and timid in comparison to their heyday, and in the face of yet more threats from Tory ideologues – hell bent on recreating the days of Thatcher – they need to get their act together and demonstrate their necessity.

  • Passing through 12th Jan '15 - 5:40pm

    “The most-read independent website by and for Lib Dem supporters. Not paid for by trade unions or millionaires.”

    Yes, it is a mystery why the unions don’t become “much less tribal in their political affiliations” as it is blatantly clear how welcoming the LDs are towards them.

  • For clariry, the Tory TU proposals require that 40% of all eligible voters must have voted for industrial action, and that tthere must be a minimum tuurnout of 50% ofvoters. The Tories onlygot 23% of all eligible votes in 2010. Many MPs, MEPs, local councillors and police commissioners who were elected, did not meet such voting requitements.

    So one can fairly surmise that the Tories want to attack fundamental liberties once again for three reasons;

    1. The predominantly right wing owned and staffed media have set the scene by incessantly attacking TUs letting the Tories believe they can get away with this.

    2. The tories believe they can get votes doing this. Many of the public have absorbed the anti TU propaganda.

    3. The tories clearly intend to make huge cuts on health, education, transport and the fire service, because these proposals relate to these public services.

    We have seen an attack on many civil liberties in recent years, e.g. the gagging laws affecting charities and not lobbyists, the impairment on the rights of civil protest, the enforcement of 5 year government, and onerous procedural restrictions on the voting mechanism which TUs have to comply with (which employers have tried to use to subvert democracy).

    How about UK companies over a certain size having to have an elected worker’s director on the Board, as do Germany?
    How about UK companies addressing their overall dire performance competitively, by properly investinh in capital, training and R&D?
    How about UK companies properly involving and harnessing the talents of their employees, rather than continually adopting the traditional autocratic approach to employer / employee relationships. They might just get somewhere then.

    In general, good and well managed companies and public services do not have strikes.

    So let us oppose these anti democratic proposals, and retain fundamental liberties. And, let us promote good management within the public and private sectors for the goodof our national interest.

  • Joe Otten 12th Jan ’15 – 12:26pm
    Oh dear, Oh dear, Oh dear. Joe Otten, where do you get this stuff? The Norman Tebbit book of anti-union propaganda!.
    Do you ever think twice when you proclaim that —
    “……a majority of union members don’t vote Labour, they are taxed by default to fund the Labour Party. This is not empowerment, or an expression of civic duty, it is little better than corruption. ”
    Outside of your own imagination can you tell us which union does this?
    Is there any union that does this?
    Would it be lawful for a union to do this?

  • Joe Otten
    “It is ludicrous that when a majority of union members don’t vote Labour, they are taxed by default to fund the Labour Party.”

    Rather like the protests about the Under Occupancy Penalty not being a tax, neither are Union subscriptions.

    The political levy is not mandatory & all affiliated Unions have an option not to contribute to the Labour party.

    If you believe your statement to be true, I suggest you do some research to find out the facts.

  • The Unions are becoming irrelevant in my view, I work in a Central Government Department and frankly no-one under the age of 40 has any interest in them. As quite a young person myself (23) I don’t know anyone around my age that is a member of a trade union.
    When it comes to strikes there was a strike in my department no very long ago by the PCS but I would bet only 10% of the workforce were on it and as such it had no real impact as most resource plans allow for this as it can be like ue to Summer holidays.

  • This is a useful article by Dave Warren — it deserves serious attention and serious discussion.

    Perhaps those who post inaccurate and ignorant remarks about trade unions might like to consider this question —
    Why is it that in most EU countries the relationship between the Trade Unions and the main right wing political party (Christian Democrat or equivalent) is so very different from the relationship in the UK?

    Is it because in the UK the main right wing party has become rabidly anti-union beyond all reason thanks to the enemy within ideology of Thatcher?

    I know some people have spent the last ten years trying toThatcherise the Liberal Democrats but I have never understood why they did not join Thatcher’s Conservative Party in the first place.

  • jedibeeftrix 12th Jan '15 - 7:24pm

    @ JT – “Why is it that in most EU countries the relationship between the Trade Unions and the main right wing political party (Christian Democrat or equivalent) is so very different from the relationship in the UK? Is it because in the UK the main right wing party has become rabidly anti-union beyond all reason thanks to the enemy within ideology of Thatcher”

    Or, is it because our equivalent of the socialist party grew out of the labour movement, unlike continental europe where it was common for it to be an independent party in its own right, and it did so in opposition to the tory party after the liberals had ceased to be an electoral force…?

  • I’m not sure why Joe Otten responds to an article on trades unionists’ rights with a diatribe on Labour Party funding, unless he thinks perhaps those who help fund the Labour Party are automatically deserving of losing long-held freedoms as part of some sort of tribal retribution.

    Union donations to Labour are perfectly transparent and easy to opt out of. Now I’ve never been to the Ministry of Sound night club, but I wonder if the same applies there i.e. whether the people on the door would tell me (a) that my money will be partly used to bank-roll the Lib Dems, and (b) how to opt out of this arrangement. Somehow, I doubt it.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Jan '15 - 9:23pm

    John Tilley
    ‘ Is it because in the UK the main right wing party has become rabidly anti-union beyond all reason thanks to the enemy within ideology of Thatcher?’

    Yes John you are right. The Tory Party since Heath have had an automatic aversion to trades unions have they not. The revenge of Thatcher was planned and the revenge ice cold.

    The children of Thatcher are simply copying their heroine in all her visceral reactions, like a nervous tick.

    It beggars belief to me that some our own party ape that reaction. Vibrant Trades Unions are a vital part of a democratic society, as is the right to protest at the imposition of ideological changes to pay and conditions.

    It would seem that some in our party would prefer to see us return to nineteenth century conditions with no trades unions. I would like to see them deny it!

  • @ Helen
    I absolutely agree. Workers have much fewer rights and less protection than they used to (for example concerning redundancy rights) and the Lib Dems should see upholding the basic rights of all working people, including the right to strike, as an absolute given..

    A ‘fairer society’ includes people not burdened by excessive stress at work and entitled to proper breaks and contracts. For example, I think the law states workers are only entitled to a break of 20 minutes if they work more than a six-hour shift. That doesn’t sound like very much to me. In 2013, a leading supermarket chain was accused of monitoring the efficiency of staff with electronic armbands. I recently talked to one store worker in a high street electrical store who said people had left through workplace stress.

    I particularly struggle with the a culture where the public are encouraged to comment on staff performance all the time. ‘Did this driver drive safely?’ on the back of lorries, or devices asked to rate the service at their local GP surgery. People being checked up on all the time.

    No, strong, responsible, trade unions are the sign of a healthy and fair society.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Jan '15 - 11:03pm

    @ Joe Otten

    I remember filling in the form for membership of one of the teaching unions and there was a box I was invited to tick regarding my consent to payment of the political levy. There was no mention of the Labour Party but I presume they received some money from the levy. I honestly cannot remember whether I ticked it because it was so long ago – I probably did because I think trades unions need to campaign to protect their members, especially in front-line services.

    The teaching unions’ services and membership protection outweighs my concern about the political levy and it is vital that Lib Dems support unions as a service, rather than getting hung up on party point-scoring. After all, the Tories are in hoc to big business – should we boycott businesses that support the Tories?

    However, I don’t think the unions should vote at the Labour conference.

  • Helen Tedcastle 12th Jan '15 - 11:13pm

    @ Judy

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • Joe Otten 12th Jan ’15 – 10:21pm
    “…….predictable responses.”

    Joe, I am intrigued that you were able to “predict” my response along with the responses of all the other people who left comments critical of whatyou describe as your “diatribe”.

    I have not been a member of a trade union since 1981 and before that was a member of a very large trade union which did not have a political fund and was not in any way affiliated to the Labour Party.
    So I found the factual inaccuracies in your comment sad and laughable at the same time.

    I am also interested in your rather dismissive use of the words “faux outrage”.
    Are critics of the words of Joe Otten all to be condemned in this way?

    You might like to think this through more carefully. People who have posted comments critical of your ignorance of the facts and pointing out where you are simply wrong are doing you a favour.
    I believe you are a parliamentary candidate in the General Election in a few weeks time. You might consider it helpful that members of your party have brought to your attention some obvious black holes in your knowledge of the real world.

    Just think how embarrassing it would be for you if during the course of the General Election an opponent made public your very ignorant and prejudiced remarks.
    I do not know how many members of trade unions there are in your part of Sheffield but you might want to think through the consequences of saying things which they know are completely untrue.

    The party is short of parliamentary candidates at the moment. We need all the Liberal Democrat candidates that we currently have to be as well informed as possible. We do not want to suffer the sort of humiliation and ridicule that UKIP suffers for having candidates who talk prejudiced rubbish.

  • Lauren Salerno 13th Jan '15 - 8:36am

    Why do Unions exist?

    Primarily i would suggest to represent and look after the needs of their members when dealing with employers; not as a de facto Political power broker with power force Government to change policy as has been the case in the part

    As a former Trafe Unionist I have seen how not just my but others unions see themselves as the last bastion of socialism and how rhetoric and attitudes from a bygone area are used to stoke up hate,


  • Lauren Salerno 13th Jan '15 - 8:42am

    Sorry ….. most members want nothing to do with this political manoeuvring just a Union that performs in the workplace

    Small and highly vocal socialist activists often therefore dominate disproportionatel. A cycle where moderates, such as myself, feel we have no voice and where many moderates take no active role as a result

    However it is done we have to give the moderate majority the power to counter the extremists who have seized power in the Unions

  • Joe Otten is doing a wonderful job in proving why people in trade unions, even if they are in a non-affiliated union or have opted out of the political levy, should think long and hard before voting Lib Dem. Especially those in Sheffield Central, where I believe the Lib Dems only narrowly lost to Labour last time.

  • In his earlier article in 2011 Dave Warren made these points which apply even more so today –

    “……..Employment law has been transformed over the past 25 years to the extent that is now very difficult for unions to organise lawful industrial action.

    I believe Britain now has the most restrictive labour laws in Western Europe.

    Not content with the status quo the Tory right are now agitating for even more restrictions, the principle one being that any ballot for action has to have at least a 50% turnout to be legal.

    Aside from the fact that it is a nonsense to apply a threshold that applies nowhere else. If it did then very few local councillors would be elected for example…..”

    The two or three people who have posted comments in this thread making wild and faintly ridiculous allegations about trade unions should look at the real world. All this stuff about ” the extremists who have seized power in the Unions ” sounds remarkably similar to the Tory justifications for yet another anti-terrorism act.

    Who exactly are these “extremists”?
    The head of the Royal College of Midwives?
    The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers?
    The chief executive of the British Dental Assocation?

    I think LDV’s rabid critics of all things trades union should name names.
    Who are the reds hiding under their beds?

    Is USDAW the shopworkers’ union planning to take over the world by way of socialist revolution?
    Is Len McCluskey of UNITE really so fantastically clever that he has been able to outwit every one of his union’s 1,319,000 members that he has “seized power” without them even noticing in the teeth of their bitter opposition?

    Perhaps BALPA, Norman Tebbit’s union for British Airline Pilots, is secretly a Socialist Plot?
    Or maybe the POA (the Prison Officers Association) has 30,000 members who are raving Trotskyites?

    Of course the real threat to civilisation as wee know it comes from the MU, which also has 30,000 members
    The Musicians Union is no doubt building barricades out of grand pianos and cellos to protect the workers’ revolution from Joe Otten and the forces of Sheffield Liberal Democrats.

    No doubt the foot-soldiers of this socialist insurgency are provided by the SCP….. (The Society of Chirpodists and Podiatrists).

  • @ Helen Tedcastle “I remember filling in the form for membership of one of the teaching unions and there was a box I was invited to tick regarding my consent to payment of the political levy. There was no mention of the Labour Party but I presume they received some money from the levy”

    Absolutely – in fact I would guess they received all of the money. And far from not having a vote at Labour conference, they have an enormous degree of control over the Labour party. Ed Miliband would not be leader of the Labour party now if the ordinary members and/or Labour MPs had had their way – both voted for DM, but the unions voted for Ed. In fact I agree with your last post entirely – I would guess that most people join a union for the same reasons you did – and I think that’s the whole point Joe Otten is making.

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Jan '15 - 1:06pm

    Hi David. I think the new Conservative proposals are quite ridiculous. However, I do think workers should lose three days pay, instead of one, when they strike. The whole workforce taking a day off at the same time should not be treated the same as when an individual does and there is someone to cover them.

    I also want to say something about the NHS strike. My mother died quite suddenly in hospital recently (well wishes unnecessary) and if there had been an NHS strike then I would have been absolutely fuming. It is not about entitlement, she went into hospital with a cough on the Sunday and was dead on the Wednesday. She had other pre-existing conditions, but hospitals do have some responsibility to make sure people are looked after when taken under their care.

    Best wishes

  • Helen Tedcastle 13th Jan '15 - 1:14pm

    Julian Tisi
    ‘ Absolutely – in fact I would guess they received all of the money. And far from not having a vote at Labour conference, they have an enormous degree of control over the Labour party’

    Thanks for your comment. In response I looked on my union’s website to see what they do with the ‘political fund’ money. In fact NONE of the money goes to fund a political party. It all goes on campaigns run for union members. It is a non-affiliated union and it’s a major teaching union too.

    So much for the ‘enemy within..’ or those rabid socialist teachers and their unions. They just trying to get on with their job without being ground down by ideologues and Lib Dems who should know better.

  • Peter Watson 13th Jan '15 - 2:11pm

    @Lauren Salerno “However it is done we have to give the moderate majority the power to counter the extremists who have seized power in the Unions”
    But surely the moderate majority has that power by being able to vote for a leader, vote for or against strike action, and simply leave the union if they believe it is acting against their interests.
    As long as all members have the ability to vote secretly on strike action, why is an arbitrary turnout of 40% needed? Many elected positions at a local, national and european level would lose their legitimacy on that basis.

  • Shaun Whitfield 14th Jan '15 - 3:20pm

    Helen Tedcastle (in response to Julian Tisi)

    I couldn’t agree more. People confuse the term ‘political fund’ with ‘funding the Labour Party’. In unions not affiliated to the Labour Party the political fund is for campaigning – it may be spent on issues where the union is opposed to something a Labour government might want to do. Even if the union is affiliated to the Labour Party a union member can opt out.

    I am left of centre and during the dark days of Blair I thought the LIbDems were to the left of New Labour on many issues. Therefore I had no compunction about voting tactically for the LibDems at General Elections, because in my constituency Labour are a poor third behind the Tories. But it’s now like the 1980’s all over again, this time with the LibDems propping up the Tories and the unions much weaker (and being threatened to be made even weaker). Some of the anti-union stuff on this website could have been lifted straight out of the Daily Mail. Until I visited this website, I was unaware how right wing many LibDems are. My vote will return to Labour, even though they have no chance of winning in my constituency.

  • Dave Eastham 14th Jan '15 - 7:06pm

    @ Joe Otten and others
    Since sixteen I have been a Trade Unionist, having found out the hard way, that the workplace was not the “grown-up” place I had been led to believe. I’ve been active as a rep and at local and national level in trade unions over the years. Mostly, TU activity is in the workplace and more to do with individuals who, deservedly or not, have fallen foul of their organisation. On rare occasions, I voted for and took part in “Industrial Action”. Which incidentally, legally does not just have to be a Strike. Which is why you will see an option to vote for “Action short of a Strike” on ballot papers.
    Trade Union political activity, is not always through a political party, Labour or any other. Especially after the Tories legal tinkering under Mrs T and John Major. This has recently been extended by the Lobbying Act. 27 Trade Unions have political funds. 15 affiliate to the Labour Party. The previously affiliated RMT, got expelled, for allowing some of it’s Scots branches to affiliate to another political party in Scotland. Some affiliated Unions, such as Unison have two political funds, one affiliated one non-affiliated. All unions (having political funds), have mechanisms for allowing members to opt out of paying political levy.

    The Tories are again, proposing to legislate on Trade Unions structures, that exist in their imaginations, rather than fact. They aim to make it practically impossible to run legal strikes. Lib Dems should have no part of it.

    If the Trade Union relationship with the Labour Party is to be criticised (and I often do), then do it on the basis of facts. Not half listened to assertions derived from the right wing media. It would be helpful if some Lib Dems would study the actual structure of the Labour Party before commenting. It’s more complex than an organisation simply dominated by affiliated unions. After-all, as Lib Dems, we get irritated when the Press/other political parties make assertions about Lib Dems, derived from similar ignorance/misrepresentation of the way the Lib Dems work?

    No personal offence is intended to Joe and others, but as others here have said, the apparent lack of knowledge of how Trade Unions work exhibited by some Lib Dems commenting here, does seem like some of the more excruciating examples, exhibited by UKIP candidates, holding forth on subjects of which they know very little. Lib Dems should be better than this

    I suggest you start with looking at these these references

    Also look at the Trade Union section of the History and Policy website.

  • David Warren 14th Jan '15 - 10:35pm

    @Shaun Whitfield

    I would ask you to think carefully about which way you vote in your constituency at the next election.

    Labour might be funded by the trade unions but that doesn’t mean they are a workers party far from it.

    In fact some of the leaders of large unions who backed Miliband have been very critical of him since.

    Yes there are people in the Lib Dems who could be called right wing but that could also be said about the Labour party.

    New Labour changed the nature of that party and when Brown was in power they tried to privatise the industry I worked in.

    They were also fiercely anti union in the dealings with the CWU at that time.

    To everyone else who has contributed. I am really pleased that the article has generated such a wide ranging debate.

    Employment law and political funding are really important issues.

    It is great that LDV has provided a vehicle for them to be discussed in such detail.

  • Shaun Whitfield 15th Jan '15 - 11:15am

    David Warren

    I am fully aware that the Labour Party has over the years lurched to the right, but I still think that compared with the Tories and LibDems they are the least hostile to trade unions. Look at the strapline at the top of this website – LibDems who run this website are evidently proud to have no financial connection with trade unions. If you were a party where the opinions of, say Helen Tedcastle and John Tilley held sway, you may have a point. But the Orange Bookers have taken control, as evidenced by your party’s disgraceful coalition with the Tories.

    I think it was one of the Oz trial defendents who summed things up quite well in the early seventies – the difference between the Tories and Labour is only an inch – but it’s the inch in which we live (although I do admit it’s probably only half an inch now!).

  • Shaun Whitfield 15th Jan '15 - 11:29am

    Just to add, I note that the second part of the strapline reads: ‘not paid for …..by millionaires. Two words: Michael Brown. And before you say so, all political parties appear to have receive doantions from dubious character over the years. By comparison, trade union funding of Labour is a paragon of transparency, but this is getting into the issue of funding of political parties.

  • Peter Watson 15th Jan '15 - 4:46pm

    @Shaun Whitfield “Just to add, I note that the second part of the strapline reads: ‘not paid for …..by millionaires.”
    I think that the strapline means that this website is not paid for by unions or millionaires. The party is a different matter.
    Though I must admit that it took me a little while to get used to the advertising that helps fund the site. I’d come to join the debate and find something I’d been looking at on Amazon or Superfi staring back at me. Once I’d got over the shock I reflected on just how good (or bad) web advertising is these days.

  • David Warren 15th Jan '15 - 5:23pm

    @Shaun Whitfield

    Trade union funding of Labour is far from transparent but as you quite rightly say that is another debate.

    Maybe in future I will write about my experience as a member of my union national political fund management committee.

  • Shaun Whitfield 16th Jan '15 - 12:10pm

    Peter Watson: my mistake, Still a reasonable point, though.
    David Warren: All systems are capable of being abused. We don’t (yet) abandon welfare payments just because a
    minority engage in fraud.

  • David Warren 16th Jan '15 - 1:12pm

    @Shaun Whitfield

    Not sure what point you are trying to make.

    Like welfare political funding needs to be reformed not abandoned.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Mel Borthwaite
    @Joe Bourke Have the Liberal Democrat’s accepted the IHRA working definition of antisemitism alone, or also the 11 illustrative examples? I hope not the latt...
  • Jenny Barnes
    "many tradespeople need vans" Ofc they do. I'm not suggesting every journey can be done without motorised transport, but many can....
  • Joe Bourke
    Andrew Hickey, violence against Jewish institutions or Jewish people on the basis of ethnicity or religious belief in anti-semitism, pure and simple. It woul...
  • Joe Bourke
    The level of penalty for self-assessment tax return errors is determined by an evaluation of the care you take in submitting required data. If it is clear that...
  • Peter Watson
    @David Franks "Liberal Democrat leaders have no right to stay silent on the key issue when the Party has a very clear policy, officially approved by ;large majo...