One of the nicer things about the period of Labour government since 1997 was that all the daft right-wing think tanks that marked the Tory years since 1979, especially in the area of trade unions and industrial relations, seemed to have all crawled back into the woodwork (and certainly had, as regards policy impact). Unfortunately, they’ve only been hibernating and the last year has brought a few out again. I mentioned the Institute for Economic Affairs yesterday and Policy Exchange, which has produced a couple of nutty pieces, not least on pensions and on industrial relations, has gone and done it again.
Sarah Veale at the TUC has done a pretty good job running through the report, but I wanted to emphasise a couple of things:
1. trade unions tend not to prosecute a dispute if there isn’t much support for it – it’s a question of strategy and credibility. Self-evidently. As a result, disputes that go ahead tend to have a high level of support from the workforce.
2. employees can, actually, choose to be a member of any union they want (subject to admission criteria in the rule book). It does, however, make sense to join a union which is recognised by the employer (and let’s not forget that employers recognise unions for a reason). So to call this ‘monopoly conditions’ is stretching the definition of the term very thin.
3. I can’t even begin to understand what the policy implications of ‘using competition policy to address monopsony power on the part of employers’ means in the context of ‘replacing the system of monopoly unions bargaining with monopsony employers’. I know what monopsony means, technically, and I’m guessing that what the report is implying is the splitting up of large public sector employers into a series of smaller ones. I haven’t yet read it – though I will (owing to a lack of time and, besides, the simple act of downloading the report would just make me feel dirty 😉 ).
4. Unions are simply not monopoly suppliers of services: where workers have a choice of being in the union or not, there can simply be no question of monopoly power. I think everyone should be in the union as a matter of principle and also in terms of giving meaning and strength to the union memberships of those who are members – but it’s never a monopoly.
Evidently, the issue on taxpayer support for unions is an attack on public sector unions and the extent to which lay reps receive paid time-off for union activities. Time-off for reps is a good thing – industrial relations run much smoother as a result of the hard work done by activists in representing fellow workers’ views to managers, whether it’s in the public or the private sector. All Policy Exchange has to do is to read ACAS reports on the issue and there is a long-standing body of academic research citing the practical and economic benefits to employers of the union voice (as a special service to Policy Exchange staff, try here and here).
At the same time, this sort of nonsense does need to be knocked back whenever it appears – allowing it to gain traction by not being challenged is the simplest way of seeing it wind up on the statute book.