When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, her Conservative government began to roll back the powers of the trade unions.
The preceding so-called Winter of Discontent, of widespread strikes, had helped to lose the incumbent Labour government the May election.
Despite having a large overall parliamentary majority, Mrs Thatcher found that curbing the unions was a slow and controversial process. Two of the most bitter strikes, the Miners’ and Wapping, happened well into the Tories’ second term.
Reforms, under Norman Tebbit’s supervision, included legislation that gave workers the right to a vote if they were asked to go on strike, stopped secondary strikes in sympathy with other workers, and stopped (sometimes violent) mass and secondary picketing. The legislation boosted the economy and slashed the number of strikes. By 1997, when Labour finally returned to office, even they had accepted the reforms.
But this century, strikes have become more frequent again. Lord Tebbit blames the supremacy of EU legislation. The problem is apparent in London Tube strikes this summer.
The Trade Union Bill will ensure that a turnout of at least 50 per cent of members will be needed to authorise action and in key public services, such as health, fire and transport, the strike must be endorsed by 40 per cent of those entitled to vote. It will also ensure that union members have to actively “opt in” to political levies, most of which are currently paid to the Labour Party, and it will place restrictions on pickets.
Last week the budget included a surprise and welcome rise to the minimum wage. The government, and the preceding coalition, want to ensure that people have an incentive to come off benefits and enter the workplace on decent wages.
The right to strike for non-essential workers is an important one. But these reforms re-balance that right against the overall needs of society and the economy.
They should be extended to Northern Ireland.