When a monarch expresses sympathy with strikers, the workers probably have a good cause. In 1926 the general strikers were denounced as revolutionaries, but King George V insisted: “Try living on their wages before you judge them.”
He had a point: miners were having their hours increased and their pay cut by between 10 and 25 per cent. Indeed, trade unions have fought many a good cause since they were legalised in 1871. Conditions were often so appalling that workers quite literally worked themselves to death. Pensions – the main cause of today’s dispute – were mostly a dream.
But the founders of the trade union movement, if they came back today, would be astounded at how their cause has gone astray.
Trade unions have won many successful battles over the years. There are rigorously enforced health and safety rules, universal state pension and often generous occupational pensions, maternity and paternity leave, and powerful employment protection upheld by an industrial tribunal system that employers fear.
Just as environment groups suffered a loss of direction after they won most of their arguments, so have trade unions. Rather than righting wrongs, they now too often defend the indefensible or defend their own vested interests.
With less to offer, they can no longer rely on employees paying their dues because they can see the advantages of joining, but instead resort to heavy handed tactics.
Katharine Birbalsingh, the deputy headmaster sacked after speaking at the Conservative conference, has described in horrifying detail the scaremongering and bullying used by education unions to recruit.
The education unions now too often act against children’s and even teachers’ interests: opposing headteachers being given the power to raise wages for good teachers because it would undermine the union’s negotiating role, and blocking powers to sack incompetent teachers, damaging the education of millions of children.
In today’s strike, the unions are defending what they know is indefensible – a public sector pension system so generous that ordinary taxpayers who are funding it can’t afford it for themselves.
The unions have won many battles, but lost a role. In the long run, that will be less a problem for the country than it will be for the unions themselves.
Anthony Browne is a board member at theCityUK