The fiasco of Unite’s strike ballot of BA staff brings back memories of the 1970s when the Trade Unions were immensely powerful. Their leaders, now mostly dead, were household names and strikes were endemic – most notably at the Longbridge and Halewood car plants. The economic damage was immense and no politician – until Mrs Thatcher hove into view – was prepared to tackle the Trade Unions head-on. But successive Acts of Parliament in the early 1980s virtually emasculated them. As manufacturing industry declined, so did their clout.
Now, with a modest domestic car manufacturing base, a coal industry – under the struggling UK Coal – which is a shadow of its former self and a declining steel sector, union disruption has been minimal. Indeed, in the latter’s case, every effort has been made to save the Tata-owned Redcar steelworks, whose closure was confirmed recently.
However, there are two companies where union power remains entrenched. Despite BA’s privatization, it still remains heavily overstaffed, especially compared with such highly successful operations as Easyjet and Ryanair: admittedly, neither flies regularly beyond Europe.
Strong management is needed if BA is to prosper. Perhaps, Ryanair’s garrulous – and acerbic – Chief Executive, Michael O’Leary, should be piloted into the Chief Executive’s seat. And, of course, like an eternal millstone around its neck, is BA’s accursed £3.7 billion pension deficit.
Poor productivity is also an endemic problem at Royal Mail – and similar solutions are needed. In terms of ownership, privatization – under a strict regulatory regime as applied to the water sector – offers the best option. Of course, in terms of economic damage, Trade Unions can validly point to the unprecedented financial bill for supporting Royal Bank of Scotland inter alia.
But the BA scenario has seen the Brothers twitch once again. With heavy public sector job cuts almost inevitable after the Election, will Trade Union power now reassert itself?