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My Lords, when I was 17 and a rather inept bricklayer, I talked to the UCATT steward about joining the union, but he would not let me. He said I was a natural boss, not a worker—what a wise man he was.
When I became that boss about 12 years later, running a group of companies with more than 1,000 employees, the trade unions were represented in those businesses with thin margins and old technology. When I was looking for new ideas they came from our employees—not through the union, but directly. That is an illustration of the image problem of the trade unions. It seems that they are associated mainly with problems not solutions, and with stress in failing industries.
When one thinks of the history of unions, one of the first things that springs to mind is the vicious fight to retain deep-mined coal. We know now, and knew then, that miners get lung diseases and cancer, for which the Government pay them and their lawyers vast sums in compensation, all to produce coal, which is probably the worst-polluting energy form in the world. The product is poisonous and the people producing it die in great pain as a result of the production. How can this be virtuous? The history of the unions may be described as magnificent by those who agree with them politically and it is certainly significant, but surely one cannot look back with nostalgia to a time when people were working in such toxic conditions.
We know that unions exist to protect against unfair employment practices, but nowadays we find that companies with such practices will disappear, not least because of the power of social media to spread bad news in lightning-quick time. We have seen many companies forced into public apologies in response to a so-called Twitterstorm. A company mistreating its employees would quickly receive negative headlines, and rightly so. Perhaps we can credit trade unions for helping to shape a society where bosses are as acutely aware of the need to treat employees well as are the employees themselves. But the truth is that with more information, particularly in this digital age, self-regulation is a lot easier, which perhaps diminishes the role of unions.
Unions are not really a major force in the rapidly growing parts of the economy. In sectors such as software and systems, and consulting and financial services, not many unions are run by young overachievers. We tend to find the unions in places where the economy is stable or failing; that may be why the number of union members seems to be doing the same. What is happening to these members? They are getting older, with the proportion of trade union members aged under 50 falling since 1995. The total number of union members has been going down for years as their average age has been rising. These are the classic signs of the customer base of a company that is in trouble.
Unions are sometimes found to be resisting change, but there is a big problem with this: change is what makes the economy thrive. Surely, the successful unions of the future will be those that embrace change and are responsive to their customers—in other words, their members—because it is the customer who changes a business, whatever the managing director or the shareholders might wish. If the customers change their preference, the company must change or die. Customers who never change their minds seem to me to be like the members of unions, who can seemingly agree once and for ever about their preferences for political donations. Let us not forget that the other customers are people using public services, and they do not get a vote at all.
It is not simply a battle between the unions and the employers; it is quite often a battle between the employers and the employees against the real customers—the patients whose operations are cancelled and the Tube travellers who cannot get to their jobs. The patients whose operations will be cancelled as a result of the intransigence of the BMA have not been offered a vote. In both cases—the doctors and the London Tube—the Government want to increase the number of times that a good public service is offered, and the union goes on strike.
The unions have described the Bill as an evil attack on their very existence, but it will make them more responsive to their customers, who are, of course, their members. Any legislation forcing the unions to get their customers—their members—regularly to sign up for their deductions will force the unions to improve their practices. Any legislation forcing the unions to have a healthy majority before taking action that could cost those members their jobs will, again, force the unions to improve their practices. Personally, I can see the advantages of e-ballots, if they are secure. I know that old-fashioned paper ballots are not as secure as they look. So nobody who is trying to destroy a union first makes it improve; quite the reverse. If unions concentrate on old industries and preserving old practices, they will die as surely as those old industries will be superseded by new ones. The unions should see this Bill as heading in the same direction as they are—becoming more technologically savvy and evolving ways of communicating with both their members and their members’ employers. That way, unions can represent people in the new businesses that are our future.