Trade Unions: The acceptable face of the tyranny of the minority?

It was always going to happen – ever since the Coalition government took office in 2010, the stage was set for a series of confrontations between unions and the government. Everybody expected the civil servants, the teachers and the Tube workers ‘rising up’ against this ‘ideologically driven government’, but who really would have predicted we’d see HMRC staff, driving examiners and coast guard officials take to the picket lines? Not ChairmanDavey, that’s fo’ sure. For many, the strikes are a symbol of unity against the programme set out by this government. But is this the case? The evidence seems to point to a tyranny of the minority that gives a false legitimacy to the actions of unions in the name of the ‘workers’, when in reality most of the workers haven’t gave a preference either way.

The main problem presented by the amount of strikes taken by the unions is that they simply lack legitimacy.

In November 2011, the National Association of Head Teachers voted 75% in favour of strike action, which seems an impressive mandate for action. This, however, was on a 53% turnout – the real figure of its membership who voted in favour was 39.75%.

In June 2011, the National Union of Teachers voted 92% in favour of a strike – wowza! – but on a meagre 40% turnout. That’s 36.8% of the membership in favour. The Association of Teachers and Lectures also voted, with just 83% in favour on a 35% turnout. That’s just 29.05% of members in favour of action. In the same month, the Public and Commercial Services union voted a disappointing 61.1% in favour of strikes – and with an even more disappointing turnout of 32.4%. Here we have a pathetic 19.8% vote in favour.

How can this be legitimate?

The issue here isn’t the right of a worker to withhold his or her labour, it is the ability of a union to force the whole membership to withhold their labour on a minority vote in favour. What more sums up the idea of a tyranny of the minority than 19.8% of a membership voting for action in the name of the union? This situation is heavily detrimental to the government-industrial relations in the UK, since it allows a small band of (possibly) ideologically driven members to prevail in the face of general member apathy, provoking opposition instead of consensus – more disunions (sorry).

For ChairmanDavey, the solution is simple. In order to make unions more effective as a tool for the workers, they should better represent the workers – all of the workers. To this end, a law requiring at least 50% of the membership of the union to be in favour of a strike would give increased legitimacy to strike action – or at least a damn sight more legitimacy than a 19.8% vote in favour. By unions having to gain a membership majority there would be more chance of a wide, open debate within unions about the key issues that impact them, and the type of action desired by the membership – rather than the current ‘one strike fits all’ model that’s in vogue.

However, there is one criticism that’s been at the forefront of ChairmanDavey’s mind. The current Coalition government gained 59.1% of votes in the 2010 General Election, on a 65% turnout – that’s just 38.42% of the electorate voting for either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. Why are these seen as legitimate whilst the action of unions are not? The key difference is that a government has a duty to only represents its voters, translating the ideas in its manifesto upon which it was elected into actual policies. Whilst the government may seek to represent those who didn’t vote for them, that is solely at their discretion.  In contrast to this, unions aim to represent their members – all of them – which they fail to do when support for their action is bestowed by a mere minority. Unions claim to be acting in the interests of their members but the fact is, under the current system, they don’t actually know what their membership – all of their membership – think. They act on the mandate of the minority whilst claiming to represent the majority. This has to stop.

Of course, this policy would be resisted heavily be the unions. They’d kick and scream and strike and march until their placards are smeared and their banners are torn, but ultimately the medicine will make them stronger. What will emerge are unions that are more in touch with their members, who really represent their concerns and not just a small vanguard or Marxist elite. A government may not dismiss a walkout backed by 60% of members on a 95% turnout as easily as it could (and should) dismiss it on a 30% turnout – by truly giving the workers power, a say over their own future and ultimately, the action carried out in their name.

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