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Are unions too powerful?

I've been reporting on businesses for the last eight years.

When I meet the people who run those businesses they regularly tell me about changes the government could make to encourage enterprise but the number of chief executives who complain that unions are too powerful can be counted on one hand.

The threat of strike action is certainly an effective bargaining tool.

In recent months staff at Tata Steel, Jaguar Land Rover and Network Rail have voted to take industrial action over pay or pensions, in some cases both. In each case common ground was found and strike action averted.

Vince Cable spent five years in government as Business Secretary tells me he had few problems with the unions between 2010 - 2015.

He points out that over that period Britain experienced a severe recession and a significant squeeze on living standards and yet industrial relations in Britain were generally good and the number of strikes were and still are low by historical standards.

Deep down people are reluctant to strike unless there is a genuine grievance. People don't want to lose their pay.

Unions can be stroppy and difficult but their bite is less threatening than their bark. In practice they are very collaborative.

– Vince Cable
Teachers march through central London in support of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in March 2014. Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Mr Cable describes the measures the government proposes in the Trade Union Bill are "depressingly ideological and completely unnecessary".

He tells me that, while in coalition with the Conservatives, he vetoed similar reform proposals on 19 separate occasions and that much of what he dismissed as either unhelpful or ineffective has ended-up in this bill.

Are unions too powerful? Credit: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire

Strike action is certainly rarer than it was - just over 788,000 working days were lost in 2014 compared with 27,000,000 in 1984.

Today 6.4 million people belong to a union, in 1984 there were 10.7 million members.

Union membership and influence has diminished but 25 unions remain significant donors to political parties (mainly the Labour Party) and the public sector is more heavily unionised than the private sector.

The motive here may be more complex than the government is prepared to admit.

788,000
working days lost in 2014
27.1m
working days lost in 1984

The government clearly believes this is a public sector problem.

It cites the teaching strike by members of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and London Underground strike by members of the RMT and TSSA - both last year - as proof of the need to toughen strike laws.

A mass rally of striking miners in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire 1984. Credit: PA/PA Archive/Press Association Images

The unions have thrown up their hands in horror. Margaret Thatcher restricted their power in the 1980s, they see this as an attempt to enfeeble them.

Which begs the question of how effective these new laws will be.

The ONS has counted 872 strikes in the last five years.

Nick Boles, the trade union minister told me earlier that the "vast majority" had turn outs of more than 50% and secured the backing of at least 40% of those eligible to vote.

Put another way: the vast majority would have gone ahead under the new laws.

6.4m
union members in 2014
10.7m
union members in 1984

The drive to ensure that strike ballots properly capture the mood and will of the workforce seems entirely sensible.

So it's curious that while the government opposes the unions' proposal to allow online balloting.

The government points to concerns about privacy and intimidation and argues that the technology isn't up to the job yet, but it's the same technology that the Conservative party is using to select its candidate for London mayor.

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