Imagine a society of the future looking back at the ‘olden days’ and discussing why it was that essential service workers were routinely allowed to just stop work in order to benefit their own little group. They would be amazed that millions of people would be prevented from attending their work and causing economic and social damage because a few people wanted to either enhance their already higher than average pay or artificially protect jobs that had to be phased out because of technological innovation.
They might well laugh at the nonsensical justifications given at that time for supporting socially destructive actions and applaud the changes, when they came, that made strike action in essential services illegal and introduced a mandatory and binding dispute arbitration service (Industrial Dispute Resolution Service, IDRS), funded equally by the employers and employees which settled disputes in a quasi judicial manner.
As it happened very few disputes actually went to arbitration when it became clear that most of these stoppages were, in fact, politically motivated strikes. The formerly named ‘Trades Unions’ had lost all relevance in their changing world and simply sought to create as much trouble as possible in a desperate attempt to seek contemporary relevance as used to happen before the introduction of industrial relations legislation. Naturally, many of the leaders of these unions were seen to be much more interested in protecting their own well paid jobs than any benefit for their members who funded them.
History shows us that despite all the rhetoric and damage they caused to other workers by their short term but highly effective disruption techniques they achieved very little. Looking back at the transportation disputes of the early 21st century, London tube disruption actually hastened the introduction of ticketless entry and driverless trains. The case study is important because it showed that, had the trade union been less politically driven they could have jointly agreed a much more beneficial transition whereby employees simply moved into other posts within the structure. As it happened agency workers lessened the impact of stoppages but loss of so much goodwill meant that existing workers got a much worse deal than would otherwise have been the case.
The new arrangements sought to avoid confrontation as opposed to actively seeking it and disputes, when they arose, were much more easily resolved.
When the new representative structures were introduced the term ‘Trade Union’ was never used again because of the association the name had with political and social disruption. In fact, in many quarters their actions were likened to industrial terrorism because of the strategy of harming an innocent third party in order to gain some secular advantage from a lawfully elected government.
Studying our history from such a position showed that the confrontational tactics in the early mining disputes through to the introduction of the integrated transportation authority consistently made matters worse for the workers. It was clear that certain individuals in the old trade union movement were much more concerned with their own public profile and a degree of celebrity that could never otherwise be achieved that they artificially constructed disputes simply to remain in the public eye. The then Labour party never came to terms with it and lost all relevance themselves. With funding reduced when members were actually asked if they wanted to give money to the Labour party they simply fell away with new and principled political parties taking their place.
Nowadays, they are a loose association of many socialist groups that spend more time arguing amongst themselves than they do about the future of the country and their combined presence in parliament of 7 seats, just three more than the old Liberal Democrats shows just how far they have fallen.
Eliminating strike action changed more than just a handful of industrial relations disputes. Much of the drive for privatisation of collectively funded activities was simply to avoid the politically motivated and/or secular blackmail from trades unions. Once IDRS was implemented employers, both private and public were no longer subject to any form of industrial action and it became clear that well structured public bodies were more than capable of running services at lower cost and with better terms and conditions for employees. In the early 21st century around 2015 almost all trade union activities were consigned to the public sector as was strike action, virtually exclusively. The mantra was ‘privatise it and remove trade unions from the equation’.
It’s well known now but strikes and their causes held back these progressive changes for 80 years until the changes were initiated and campaigned for by, what is now the government, a smaller party then but, with firm principles. After the changes many services returned to public management for the benefit of everyone.
Just after 2017, the UK economy began to move ahead with a surge of innovation and self reliance. The newly gained independence from the, now defunct, European Union, the UK being the first of many countries to take the same action, led to an influx of investment that drove the need to re-order industrial relations in the workplace, particularly for essential services and that led to the dispute resolution system that remains fully functional and relevant even today.
Now, it seems ludicrous that so many people were prevented from doing their jobs because essential services could simply be withdrawn on the say so of just a handful of workers with separate agendas. Today, it seems so obvious that if two parties cannot agree then a third party should make the decision for them.
Sometime after 2020, but not the principle subject of this discussion, it is worth just mentioning that the changes to political party funding altered the political landscape and virtually eliminated the ‘soft’ corruption endemic in the old system so the last 100 years have indeed seem many progressive changes that have contributed to the economically successful and socially just society we have in the UK today.