In the 1970’s, Britain watched in horror as a small minority of militant activists, hell bent on causing as much disruption as possible, mobilised the trade unions to bring the country to its knees. During widespread strikes in 1979, Liverpool council had to store corpses in a factory because there was no one around to bury them. Leicester Square became a rubbish dump. Everyone who lived through those dark times has a duty to remind people that the Winter of Discontent was the price of militant socialism.
Successive Conservative and Labour governments learned their lessons and did everything in their power to keep militant trade unionism at bay. Trade union membership slowly fell. Employment levels steadily climbed.
But what about unions today? Union bosses seem to be more powerful than they’ve been for 30 years.
Official stats, released last week, paint an interesting picture of the current state of the trade union movement. The headline figures suggest the number of employees who were union members rose to 6.35 million in 2018, the second successive annual increase. Predictably, industries with the highest proportions of public sector workers had the highest union memberships, with education, public administration and defence recording the biggest percentages.
But for the unions, that’s where the good news stops. Take a step back and the picture is much bleaker for the union barons.
Despite desperate spinning from the hard left, young people simply aren’t interested in union membership. More than three quarters of employees who were trade union members were aged 35 or older. Of these, a full 39 per cent were over 50. Just 4.4 per cent were aged between 16 and 24. The membership rates for young people couldn’t even breach double figures. Looking past the headlines, the figures paint a damning picture for the future of the unions. The TUC itself identified this problem last year, but it seems nothing has changed.
Not only are the unions getting older, they’re getting narrower. Looking back to 1998, the levels of public sector and private sector union members were comparable - a touch above or below 3.5 million. In 2018, public sector membership stood at 3.7 million, while private sector membership had crumbled to 2.65 million. The overall proportion of employees who are members of trade unions is significantly higher in the public sector: 13.2% of private sector employees belonged to a trade union, compared to 52.5% of public sector employees. But recent stats from the ONS show 16.4% of all people in paid work were employed in the public sector at the end of 2018, the lowest percentage since the start of the series in 1999. The unions are drawing from an increasingly narrow pool.
The final nail in the coffin is wages. Union bosses will forever carp on about getting better pay and conditions for their members, from the evil capitalist paymasters or miserly government ministers. That argument is starting to fall apart at the seams. The trade union wage gap (basically the percentage pay difference between union members compared with non-members) is falling fast. For the public sector, it’s down from 16.9% in 2017 to 11.6% in 2018, the lowest recorded since the series began in 1995. Following a similar trend, the private sector trade union wage gap also fell significantly, from 7.1% in 2017 to 2.6% in 2018, its lowest level since 2008. That’s despite the level of collective agreements (when pay is determined by the unions’ collective bargaining) remaining constant at 26% between 2017 and 2018. Put simply, the unions’ claims to getting their members better pay deals is evaporating before their eyes.
These figures boil down to a simple truth: how can the union bosses claim to speak for younger, private sector go-getters that aspire to higher pay, when they have nothing to offer them? These red barons, who pursue aggressive and overtly political campaigns, are dinosaurs from lost age, who’ve completely failed to adapt to a future with an ambitious and flexible free market economy.
Yet these union cartels still wield tremendous political power. They control a chunk of seats on the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, and have proved quite willing to throw their weight around. The Tories have recruited union bosses to various cushy public appointments, including - incredibly - the Bank of England. They even enjoy mega salaries, as we revealed in our Trade Union Rich List, with union coffers boosted by millions of pounds of taxpayers money.
Taxpayers are sick and tired of militant unions, holding the political system hostage while providing poor representation and diminishing benefits for an increasingly dynamic UK workforce. Whenever old socialist policies are reheated and foisted on weary voters, these hard left trade unionists always seem to be behind them. By 1979, Britain was paying the price for letting them pull the strings. Politicians of all parties can’t let it happen again. They need to shoot down these red barons before it’s too late.