Six points about the Trade Union Bill

  1. Making striking more difficult might be a good thing. The most controversial part of the bill is the part requiring at least 50% turnout in strikes overall (so 25% of members must vote in favour), and for public sector strikes the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote. This certainly does make striking less easy, but it hardly makes it impossible. If workers really feel that they need to strike, they can still do so, provided they get 25% or 40% of total members (for private and public sector workers respectively) to agree with them. This does make it harder for people like Len McCluskey and Mark Serwotka to call strikes that most union members don’t want, though.
  2. Most workers aren’t in a union. Only 14% of private sector workers and 54% of public sector workers – 25% overall – are in a union. That means that strikes, even if they are good for union workers, only benefit a small number of workers. And everyone else is inconvenienced by them: strikes can be costly and time-consuming for people who use the services that the striking workers provide.
  3. People who are in a union are generally middle-income workers. According to the ONS, “Middle-income earners were more likely to be trade union members than either high or low paid employees. About 38 per cent of employees who earned between £500 and £999 were members of a trade union, compared with 21 per cent of employees earning £1,000 or more. The proportion of employees earning less than £250 who were trade union members was 15 per cent.” Also, “Employees in professional occupations are more likely to be trade union members” (this includes jobs like nurses).
  4. Why shouldn’t firms be allowed to hire agency workers to fill in for striking workers? Workers who take part in official strikes (as defined here) are protected from being fired, except after 12 weeks of striking if the employer has tried to settle the dispute. This privilege is popular but if the only reason to stop firms from hiring replacement workers is that it makes strikes less powerful it’s not clear why this is a bad thing.
  5. Some parts of the bill do seem draconian. Making strikers wear armbands may be justifiable if there is a problem with identifying workers who are actually working and who are taking part in the strike – I don’t know if this is the case. Requiring picketers to give their names to the police seems entirely overboard, though, and David Davis is probably right that it’s unnecessary.
  6. Strikes do cost money, though some might have a surprising upside too. Between 2011 and 2014 (inclusive) about 3 million days worth of labour were lost directly because of strikes. That's costly and does not include the time lost from people working from home, leaving work early, coming in late, etc. (Giles Wilkes points out that over the same period 520 million days were lost to illness. With that context, 3 million doesn't sound very high.) But there may be surprising upside too – a Cambridge paper released today says that the February 2014 tube strike was a net positives in efficiency terms, because 1 in 20 people who found a new route to work stuck with it after that, and the long-term savings to them from that outweigh the daily losses to the other 19 in 20 workers. I'm not sure if that scales to other strikes, but it's quite a nifty finding either way. (NB: I haven't read the full paper yet, so I can't vouch for it.)