Opinion: Unions are not our enemy. Don’t make them into one.

The announcement yesterday by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) that its members would strike on Thursday 26th July – the day before the Olympic Games begin – risks turning our country into something just shy of a laughing stock and damaging Britain’s reputation and tourism industries in the short and medium term. 

Tourism is a massive industry and hundreds of thousands of people from countries across the globe will be descending on London over the next few weeks to watch the games. Tourists bring in massive amounts of money into the country, and I’m fairly sure that everybody agrees that money is very welcome at this point in time. The border agency and passport checking has been slow enough, with waits of up to three hours standing in a queue being reported. We will turn these people off coming back if their first thought of the UK is being miserable and bored in an airport terminal with their jetlagged children asking when they can get to the hotel.
I haven’t even touched on the thousands of businessmen, delegates, politicians and other people who’ll be arriving. Yes, we might all hate the directors of massive corporations but if two of them manage to bash out an agreement while they take the opportunity to meet this week to build a plant twenty miles south of Newcastle employing 480 people, we’ll all love them again. But starting a foreign company out with the image of a country on strike is hardly going to fill him with confidence.
Worst of all, all this disruptions, all these holidays darkened and money lost and it’s done on the vote of just 11.44% of the union. A tiny minority of militant members is all it takes to ruin all of this, and to give a bad name for the rest of the unionists.
We must increase the thresholds for strike action to take place. I’d never suggest 50% of the membership, but 25% is a very reasonable number. 25% of your members have to vote for strike action for you to be able to strike. This will allow the majority vote on half turnout to lead to strike action.
I’m no massive union fan, I’ll admit, but in a capitalist society a union is an absolutely 100% necessary requirement to protect working people, and to give a little bit more power to the people on the bottom rungs, to ensure they get their fair share. But unions – particularly public sector unions – are dominated by people who can’t appreciate the dire financial situation and have an axe to grind. This detracts from the good work done by unions and gives a bad name to the majority of members who, I’m sure, don’t want to ruin the starts of people’s holidays and damage our economy for years to come.
By changing the rules we help restore union’s reputations while not affecting the ability of a union that genuinely wishes to strike to do so.

* Andreas Christodoulou is the Treasurer of the Northampton Liberal Democrats, works as an auditor in Leicester, and writes here in a purely personal capacity

* Andreas Christodoulou is the Treasurer of the Northampton Liberal Democrats, works as an auditor in Leicester, and writes here in a purely personal capacity

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • …………………….But unions – particularly public sector unions – are dominated by people who can’t appreciate the dire financial situation and have an axe to grind…………………

    Or are seeing their numbers falling, jobs taken by untrained ‘temps’ and their pensions disappearing.

    Dave Page20th Jul ’12 – 2:24pm…………….Exactly.

  • Not sure I get the comparison to general elections… General elections affect everyone, and so everyone is offered a say. However, public-sector union ballots affect everyone, yet only a minority make that decision. It’s not like asking the nation, it’s asking a small, private group with potentially massive power over everyone that can be abused by extremists, as the piece says…

  • Perhaps when we see similar criteria applied to directors who conveniently award themselve inflation busting pay rises with no comparison to performance I would have some sympathy with this argument….

  • Apologies Z when you said ,a small, private group with potentially massive power over everyone I thought it was the employers you were talking about,hence my last comment…

  • I don’t get the comparison, unless said directors are paid out of public funds…? And how do employers have similarly massive power over everyone?

  • Perhaps unions should only take industrial action when it doesn’t inconvenience anyone?

  • UK Border Agency staff, unlike other strikers have very little in the way of special skills and are eminently replaceable. Their union is doing them no favours by calling them out now.

  • Alistair20th Jul ’12 – 3:40pm……………..UK Border Agency staff, unlike other strikers have very little in the way of special skills and are eminently replaceable. ……………

    Until their ‘replacements’, as has been reported, fail to make the right checks and are accused of causing delays and ‘putting the country’s security at risk’.

  • Richard Dean 20th Jul '12 - 4:09pm

    11.44% is hardly a mandate for drastic action, when 80% don’t bother to vote. But it does represent 57.2% of those who cared to vote, which seems like a very good majority by comparison to general elections.

    Maybe the 80% don’t care either way, in which case it might be fair to assign half as Yes and half as No, giving a final result of 51.44% in favour of strike action and 48.56% against – which is still good by comparison to GEs.

    Or maybe the 80% regard the union as a waste of time and aren’t intending to take any action anyway. It certainly looks like an interesting week coming!

  • The relationship between private sector employees and employers is fundamentally different to the public sector. In the private sector the unions know that if they push the employer too hard there is a real danger that the company will go under, losing the union members their jobs. Similarly, employers know that extensive strike action will damage profits and ultimately send the company on a downwards spiral into bankruptcy. So there is pressure upon both parties to reach an equitable settlement in which the company remains reasonably profitable. However, in the public sector there is no danger of the union driving their employer into bankruptcy. They know that, like the banks, the government will ultimately bail them out. All union members stand to lose is a few days pay – in the short to medium term their jobs remain secure. So, like the banks, we need some way of ensuring that the general public and taxpayers are not exploited by narrow sectional interests. Perhaps this does mean that the rules on strike action in the public sector need to be different from those in the private sector; and in some sectors, such as public transport, we may even need to consider making strike action illegal.

  • …………………………Perhaps this does mean that the rules on strike action in the public sector need to be different from those in the private sector; and in some sectors, such as public transport, we may even need to consider making strike action illegal……………………….
    Would this be the ‘private’ rail companies, airlines, bus companies? A real Liberal view.

  • Hmmm…there seems to be some discontinuity between the title of this piece Opinion: Unions are not our enemy. Don’t make them into one. and the theme of it, which is that the powers of trade unions to take action to defend their members should be curtailed even more.

    Did you run this past anyone connected with a trade union? I have a sneaking suspicion that they might tell you that pursuing this line of argument would be pretty much guaranteed to turn the unions into enemies of the LibDems (if they are not already).

  • “A tiny minority is all it takes to ruin..”, “…dominated by people who can’t appreciate the dire financial situation and have an axe to grind. ” sounds too much like some of our councils! A lot of our councillors are elected on 11.44% of the total eligible electorate or less. I should think hardly any have 25% or more. To be consistent and principled, almost all our councillors would have to immediately resign.

  • Under Thatcher we were all told that unions would bring the UK down and that ‘unfettered’ Capitalism freed from greedy unions were our salvation.


  • Would this be the ‘private’ rail companies, airlines, bus companies? A real Liberal view.

    Airlines, like package tour companies, go bust on a regulator basis so if their unions and company management can’t get their act together then there are plenty of alternatives for the public to use. However the same cannot be said of air traffic controllers or immigration staff, who directly or indirectly are providing a service for which the Government is responsible. The railways are one of the worst examples of a so-called private public partnership in which the train operators and rail unions hold the rest of the nation to ransom, with no incentive for either side to compromise, and with the unions often holding the stronger hand. Indeed there is little difference between the private rail operators and the publicly owned London Underground when it comes to relations between management and trade unions., and the pressures under which they operate. Rail Track was a so-called private company (whose stock market value was based on its land holdings, rather than its operation of the rail tracks and stations) which went bust as soon as the Government reduced/removed its state subsidy, and the successor Network rail, though notionally private, is in fact a government sponsored quango. The bus companies situation is different, depending on where they operate, and whether fares are regulated. In London the companies are private but fares and routes are regulated by the Mayor of London, who, for instance, had to cave in from a demand from the unions for special payments during the Olympics. On the other hand, I think for instance National Express is unregulated and doesn’t receive any government subsidy, so in that case it’s up to the unions and management to sort out their differences. However, even where fares are unregulated, the bus services often rely on massive subsidies from county councils, etc., The counties provide these subsidies because they consider the services essential to their local economy. However, precisely because of this reason, neither unions nor bus company operators have much incentive to control costs, given the limited amount of competition in the sector and the barriers to new entrants.

    Liberalism is not pandering to the interests of public sector, and quasi-public sector unions – that’s the role of the Labour Party. Liberalism is surely about providing a fair balance between all sectors of society; and using the State to counter over-powerful interest groups, whether operating in the private or public arena.

  • Stuart Mitchell 20th Jul '12 - 10:28pm

    “risks turning our country into something just shy of a laughing stock”

    I don’t think so. When you see striking workers from other countries on the TV, does it make you think that country is a laughing stock? I would have thought most people are entirely indifferent to minor industrial disputes in other countries.

    “Worst of all, all this disruptions, all these holidays darkened and money lost and it’s done on the vote of just 11.44% of the union.”

    No need to worry then – presumably the other 88.6% will turn up for work as normal, as is their right. Indeed the 11.44% who voted for a strike are perfectly free to change their mind and turn up for work if they want to. (I myself once voted for a strike but ended up working that day.)

    Funny how some like to apply this strange mathematical approach to union elections but not political ones. After the 2010 election, nobody said that the Lib Dems had 14% support, rather than 22%.

  • @Stuart Mitchell – yes – when I have experienced French strikers – I do think “laughing stock”. It depends what you are striking for. If its to bring down a dictatorship thats one thing. But even Ed Milicent suggests timorously that this should be called off.

  • The problem with any volontary group is that they depend on volonteers to do the boring jobs, turn up at endless meetings etc. Thus they can easily be taken over by careerists or groups of enthusiasts. In the case of the unions/labour the enthusiasts are various far left groups obsessed with revolution etc.
    Right now several major unions including the PCS are controlled by the far left, for whom strikes & demonstrations are the spice of life. With a largely apathetic membership its fairly easy to manipulate votes to get the desired result.

    Libdems should regret the decline of the unions, they are a potentially useful part of civil society but theres not much we can do to help. Minimum thresholds for strike ballots might be useful but the single most helpful thing for the unions would be to break their link with labour.

  • Elliot Bidgood 21st Jul '12 - 3:13pm

    Democracy (including union democracy) operates on a simple rule- decisions are made by those who show up. The problem with the idea of thresholds is it distorts that principle on several grounds. One is that we can’t really infer the intent of those who didn’t vote, while thresholds presume, in effect, that in any decision non-votes are “soft Nos”, because it demands the majority of the minority who bothered to turn up and vote for the strike “prove” that the non-votes are in favour as well, without in any way demanding that the minority of the minority who voted No do the same. All we actually know about non-voters is that they didn’t know or care enough to participate when they had a chance, so they don’t get to help decide. Also, thresholds make it theoretically more beneficial for active opponents of something to collectively non-vote if they know they are in the minority, since by not voting they could prevent it reaching the imposed “legitimating” threshold and thus defeat the motion, while by actually turning up and voting No when they knew most would vote Yes they would be guaranteeing passage.

    Also, while from a practical standpoint the 25% threshold you propose is less stringent than 50%, democratically it’s it’s even worse. A 50% threshold, while wrong insofar as it’s a threshold, is at least a fair and accepted number in that it denotes a majority. 25%, or the 40% in the 1979 Scotland referendum, are just arbitrary, giving the person setting the terms the ability to pick a number and say “I reckon this percentage feels about right to me” without rationally justifying why. No threshold is “those who care enough to turn up decided”, while 50% is a “majority of those who can vote decided”. What is 25% meant to prove?

    Anyway, all of this irrelevant, since it’s not really about democratic principle. Unless you feel equally aggreived and offended as a democrat every time a union that votes NOT to strike does so on a minority vote, or for that matter every time some other organisation you don’t care about votes for something you don’t care about on a minority vote, all of this is just about anti-unionism. Strikes are annoying. They’re meant to be. Lots of people want to stop them. However, let’s just say that’s what it’s about rather than pretend this is about democracy. For the AV referendum, several anti-reform Tory backbenchers tried unsuccesfully stick threshold amendments to the bill, in a naked move to make reform more difficult, something that Lib Dem MPs rightly opposed. Thresholds were also wrong in Scotland in 1979, delaying devolution by 20 years for no good reason. But don’t pretend this is different.

  • Ed Shepherd 21st Jul '12 - 5:14pm

    There would still be workplace disputes if unions were not allowed to call strikes or were prevented from doing so by punitive legislation. At best, aggrieved workers would call in sick or work to rule but at worst, workplace disputes would involve mass walk-outs, sudden stoppages, lock-ins and wildcat strikes. Violence has been a feature of many a workplace dispute in the past. Who wants to see workers fighting brutal, paid strikebreakers like in depression-era USA? I think that having effective unions in place to negotiate with employers and try to bring some semblance of order to disputes is far preferable to frustrated workers finding less orthodox ways to fight perceived injustice. I once worked at a privatised utility where 38 workers went to the pub one lunchtime, held a discussion and never came back to work. Trotskyite union militants in the pay of Moscow? No, just underpaid temp-workers who had got sick of an awful workplace. People who want to curtail the ability of unions to organise should be careful what they wish for.

  • The ‘picket action’ taken by farmers has resulted in promises of increased payments by two supermarket chains; I expect others will follow. Had one farmer turned up nothing would have happened; it is only by acting in unison that they have improved their lot. However, I don’t believe that 50%, 25% or even 11.44% of milk farmers are picketing these premises.

  • What a lot of illiberal comments there are on here. It is very disappointing to think, reading comments above, that loads of people who are opposed to human and civil rights might be members of our party.

    Its simple – under current rules no one has to go on strike – not even if they voted for it. So a threshold for strike action is irrelevant – if a strike doesn’t enjoy popular support amongst union members they won’t strike and the action won’t work. Disruption caused by strikes is thus proportional to the strength of feeling amongst workers. If support for the PCS strike is weak then disruption will be minimal – if it is strong then the grievance is large and the government should listen.

  • Ben, there have always been a fair number of Liberal (and post 1989, Lib Dem) members and supporters who are anti-Union. Part of my motivation, at age 17, joining the party, was because I believed some unions were a part of the problem of vested interests, preventing worthwhile things in society. It is at least arguable that the Liberal revival wouldn’t have happened at all without centre left anti trade unionism. Personally, I have moved on from that position, and was a union member for most of my working life. Also the position of unions in society has radically altered. But, I am afraid many members and supporters are stuck immoveably in that attitude, and I think provide some of the bedrock of the hatred of all things Labour (and labour!) you see here quite often.

  • David Claughton 25th Jul '12 - 2:26pm

    If the statement “Unions are necessary in a capitalist society” is true then you’re doing it wrong!

    Capitalism, in my view, works best when market sectors are served by dozens of competing companies. In such situations employees working for poor pay or in poor conditions have the option of moving to a competitor. This in turn keeps the pressure on employers to keep offering better terms and pay in order to attract the best employees.

    Unions are necessary in the public sector where the government has abdicated its responsibility over its employees. Unions are necessary in the private sector when large companies come to dominate or outright monopolise a market sector, limiting the options employees have to take alternative employment without extensive retraining.

    Unions are neither the only, nor the best solution to either of these problems.

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