The time has come for the government to ban strikes in the public sector and in those industries, such as the railways, that receive a public subsidy, says Peter Bingle.
One of Margaret Thatcher’s greatest achievements was trade union reform. She rightly sensed that voters had had enough of trade union militancy and acted to curtail their power.
Although it is now a distant memory, the ‘winter of discontent’ was the moment when the unions overreached themselves. Rubbish piled up in streets. The dead were unable to be buried. The then Labour government seemed powerless to control the issue to the point that political commentators were asking: “Is Britain governable?”
Thatcher took on the union barons. She had no time for union militants and the public supported her reforms. Even the all-powerful National Union of Mineworkers was unable to break her resolve. Union power dissipated. Membership started to decline. Militancy became a thing of the past.
Fast forward thirty years, however, and there are worrying signs of union militancy returning. The most blatant example is the long running dispute between the management of Southern Rail and their train drivers and guards, a dispute that has caused misery for commuters who simply want to be able to go to work.
Put to one side the fact that the management of Southern Rail is totally inept to the extent that it deserves to be stripped of its franchise, this dispute is about militancy pure and simple. Nobody is going to lose their job. Salaries are not going to be reduced. The dispute centres on who should be responsible for closing train doors!
The basic task of door closing is currently undertaken by guards. Southern Rail want the responsibility transferred to drivers with the guards focusing instead on looking after the wellbeing of the passengers. This is the stuff of comedy but it has become instead an obscene tragedy in which the unions’ contempt for train passengers has become painfully obvious.
So too has the need for government to have more powers to resolve industrial disputes in the public serves. Ronald Reagan famously fired air traffic controllers because of their unreasonable behaviour. Perhaps the government should have the power to do the same. There are many people who would do almost anything for a job. If guards and drivers on the Brighton to Victoria line don’t want to work perhaps they should all be fired?
The time has surely come when the government should ban strikes in the public sector and in those industries, such as the railways, that receive a public subsidy and are awarded franchises by a government created regulator.
Why shouldn’t unions have to pay compensation to customers who suffer because of their members’ unacceptable behaviour? The public mood is angry and the worrying signs of a new union militancy need to be curtailed now before they grow. Do ministers have the courage to do so?
Thatcher took on the unions because they were acting unreasonably and posed a threat to the democratic process. People have a right to go about their daily business without having to worry about whether or not their trains will run. Theresa May needs to show that she is a modern but true Thatcherite when it comes to union militancy. Those voters who are just about managing will back her to the hilt if she takes on the militants. Will she do so?