Britain: facing up to the Unions

Not for the first time in recent history are unions slowing progress.

First founded as Friendly Societies in the early nineteenth century to insure members against being thrown out of work, falling ill, reaching retirement or burdening their kin as they died, trades unions have an illustrious history. 

Yet after WWII they morphed into Luddite clubs hell-bent on milking companies, slowing or preventing productivity increases or thwarting change. New technology was all too often viewed as a threat - the print unions' behaviour at Wapping when news publishers tried to install new systems is a prime example. And yet the unions' claims to press for workers' rights (at the expense of profitability, efficiency and increases in employment) have shown them to be unrealistic and selfish bargainers.

You only have to have walked, queued for a bus, or failed to reach work at all in London to appreciate this.

Now pensions. The private sector ditched final salary pensions around a decade ago. Yet, public sector workers are still due these archaic, unrealistic and unaffordable rights. So as the coalition government tries to reign in cost and throw out these arrangements, they place themselves in the firing line of angry and spoilt public sector workers. Unions are on the warpath. Yet another Winter-of-Discontent is threatened. School-workers, fire-fighters and court officials are up in arms, stoking dissent and warning of mayhem if demands aren't met and prior arrangements honoured.

But they've forgotten the UK is in dire debt, that profligacy is a shameful word, that keeping within budget is essential, that they're now better remunerated than private sector counterparts and that - at the end of the day - their wages and thus pensions are paid for by the people.

Those whipping up enthusiasm for action should realise that they have responsibilities as well as rights, that the school kids, people with burning homes, and those charged with crimes have rights too. They are employed by the people, to be in the service of the people, for the benefit of the people.

To ban strikes would be to adhere to autocratic government, so restraint and responsibility has to triumph - lest there's anarchy. 

Even Labour Party leader Ed Miliband warned against striking over pensions, pleading that the UK can't afford such disruption. Counter-productive was his theme at the recent Trades Union Congress, where his speech was heckled, jeered and booed by delegates. Childish behaviour from an organisation with a declining membership.

From 1892 to around 1980 union membership rose consistently in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the workforce. Since then it's dropped, falling about 880,000 from 2003-10.  Public sector membership declined 0.3% between 2009-10. At present approximately a quarter of all employed workers in private and public sectors are union members.

Calmness, discussion and a desire to seek a solution based on the power of reasoned argument are preferred courses of action, I suspect. But this achieved in the knowledge that money is tight and that the world has shifted far since the 1959 Boulting Brothers film "I'm All Right Jack!"

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