Although we are not politically partisan, it should be
obvious that this blog is written by card-carrying capitalists.
Yet anyone thinking that this makes us tribally anti-union
may be surprised: it is precisely because we are capitalists that we recognise
that trade unions can and should play an active role in helping capitalism
work. Efficient capitalism depends on prices being set by free and open
markets. This includes the price of labour – wages – being set by free and open
labour markets. Restrictive practices, on the part of employers or employees,
are innately inefficient.
Everyone would benefit if trade unions focussed on removing
those barriers to free movement of labour and on ensuring that all employees
received the full economic value of their work. Money given to employees
benefits the employees, but it also benefits business, because employees then
become customers who buy the products and services sold by business. This in turn
gives everyone a stake in prosperity, which cements political stability.
The problem is that too many union bosses do not see it as
their role to help capitalism work. Some are seriously committed to the
destruction of capitalism. Others use anti-capitalism as a pretext to build
their own power and prestige.
We saw that sort of trade unionism all around us in 1970s
Britain. Things have improved since then. Lady Thatcher was a stern
schoolmistress, but she managed to drum some basic mathematics into the
reluctant British people. Even the most obstinate union boss now grasps that
you need to have a cake before you can argue about dividing it.
Which is why the current British Airways dispute seems so
strange – like a throwback to the Seventies. Given that the airline has suffered
enormous losses, and cuts are already unavoidable, how can anyone in their
right mind imagine that disruption and further loss of income can improve
However, before we go into the old Seventies default of
blaming the unions for everything, it should be remembered that even in the
Seventies the unions were not the only guilty parties: it was bad management
and weak government that allowed them to get away with what they did.
British Airways might deserve our sympathy for having to
deal with some particularly difficult trade unionists – were it not for the
fact that they are simultaneously facing a number of other problems of their
own making. This suggests a broader failure of leadership.