8 April 2024

We need to detoxify our trade unions

By Callum Robertson

As members of Aslef embark on more strike action over pay disputes, it’s worth reminding ourselves that it is still possible to reform and improve British trade unionism.

In 2016, David Cameron’s government passed the Trade Union Act, which regulated the ability of the unions to engage in industrial action. The legislation was aimed at tackling the problem of trade unions engaging in industrial action without gaining the proper consent of their members.

Prior to 1992, there was no clear requirement for a democratic majority to engage in a ballot to undertake industrial action. This meant that you saw high levels of strike action driven by a minority of trade union leaders engaged in partisan action against government rather than to solve industrial disputes.

The need to clarify and refine how unions operate in a democratic society led to the Trade Union and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act of 1992. Following this, industrial action was now subject to the result of a ballot. However, the Unions curtailed this by not engaging with their wider membership properly and subsequently passing votes on extremely low turnouts, leading to a disconnect between militant union leadership and their fairly moderate membership.

The 2016 Act changed this by introducing a minimum turnout and minimum support threshold. The new requirement was set at a 50% turnout of all eligible voters, with at least 40% of members supporting industrial action.

At the time, this was seen as a draconian measure and an attack on workers’ rights by the pro-union movement. At the same time, advocates of the Act wanted to stop what some described as ‘undemocratic action’, as seen in the 2014 NHS strikes which attracted a turnout of just 19% by Unite members.

While it is still by no means a perfect environment, we have seen how, since 2016, sensible regulation has limited vexatious anti-government industrial action in favour of more limited industrial action with a higher success rate. An example of this is the NEU strike action in 2023 which led to a substantial pay rise, demonstrating that the strength of feeling in favour of the strikers tends to be greater if action is taken with less frequency.

The underlying principle here is that the consent of the membership is more important than the militant leadership who wish dictate and agitate for politically motivated industrial action. Genuine democratic consent should act as a blueprint to reform how unions interact with their membership.

This principle is particularly absent when trade unions, often without the active consent of their members, fund organisations such as the controversial Stop the War Coalition or the Cuba Solidarity Campaign under the guise of affiliations.

At the moment, the trade union movement affiliates to an organisation. This then has the impact of giving that group large amounts of financial support and legitimacy through the provision of speakers and space at events.

This affiliation can happen at a local regional or national level, where it is voted on by delegates who sign the organisation up to an affiliation with a cause that those delegates support.

The delegates to trade unions are wildly unrepresentative of the wider membership and this is seen most pertinently in their decision making. For example, the National Education Union affiliate with the Stop the War Coalition, which has controversial opinions on the war in Ukraine. Realistically, we know that most members of the NEU will not wish to be associated with such a cause because, like most decent people, they recognise the evil of the Russian regime. Yet in their name, the NEU supports the Stop the War Coalition.

The delegate system used allows for this perversity to continue by excluding the views of the reasonable majority. Whereas a fairly straightforward reform would allow the membership of trade unions to be actively consulted on existing and new affiliations.

If any future UK government wants to tackle this, it must look to the 2016 act and its introduction of thresholds for affirmative action in favour of industrial action as a blueprint for divorcing the trade union movement from its more extremist elements.

In order to affiliate to any organisation, the trade union should be required to hold an online ballot which requires at least 40% of the total membership, on a turnout of at least 50%, to positively affiliate with any organisation.

The impact of this would be a more democratic trade union membership, who are empowered to affiliate to causes based on their actual wishes rather than the distorted dreams of militant union leadership.

The secondary impact is that normal workers will not have their money used to fund causes that they disagree with.

The overriding principle is genuine democratic participation, and by adopting this reform, you clean up the funding of dodgy interest groups whilst restoring the original focus of the trade union movement.

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Callum Robertson is the Policy Officer for the Liberal Democrat Education Association and campaigns on education and young peoples' rights.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.