Appeasement or confrontation – how to deal with the Unions

Posted on September 9, 2010

The TaxPayers’ Alliance has produced a crucial report on the Trade Unions today – exposing the true scale to which unions are subsidised with taxpayers’ money.

As well as the Union Modernisation Fund, which lives on despite its growing notoriety, the TPA have uncovered 2,493 full time Union employees who are paid for by public sector bodies at a cost of £67.5 million a year.

This is crucial for two reasons. First, it means that key union overheads like recruitment and organising of branches are funded by the general public without their knowledge or approval. Even more importantly, it means that the levies raised from union members are freed up for campaigning war chests.

This raises financial, democratic and political questions.

Financially, can we afford to be funding the unions out of the public coffers? Given union rhetoric on things like NHS Direct, presumably they would be happy to have their own non-essential subsidies cut to avoid other, deeper cuts in real public services?

Democratically, is it right that these payments go on behind closed doors without the approval of the people who pay the bills? Several unions went out of their way to try to prevent the TPA’s lawful use of the Freedom of Information Act, and their desire for secrecy suggests a fear of the public finding out what has been going on.

Poilitically, and most importantly, what should be done about the Unions’ taxpayer-funding, and their political activities as a whole? It is telling that the payments to the union movement rose by 14% in Labour’s last year in office – they chose to buy union support (and donations) using taxpayers’ cash.

Some Conservatives may believe that by continuing these payments they will be able to keep the unions sweet. Far from it. The union movement as a whole is bitterly, eternally opposed to the essential spending cuts that must be carried out. They’ll merrily pocket cash from a Tory Government – but they certainly won’t change their tune just because the enemies they love to hate are foolish enough to appease them.

Continuing to make these payments would mean that the Coalition is actively subsidising groups who intend to apply political pressure against Coalition policies. Worse, when the inevitable strikes begin, those 2,493 paid officials will be manning the pickets, rallying the troops and helping to organise the disruption of public services. This is worse than appeasement – it’s helping to pay the wages of the opposing army.

Some Conservatives may be wary of provoking the unions, and the theme that “we have got to work with them” is recurring more and more often on ConservativeHome and elsewhere.

However, I used the phrase “inevitable strikes” advisedly. The Coalition must accept that no matter what they do to butter up or bribe the unions, they will strike against spending cuts.

Faced by an enemy who intends to attack you regardless of what you do appeasement would be an absurdity. Instead, you should make the most of it – if they will strike against small to medium cuts anyway, then implement larger cuts. The first cut should be these hefty subsidies.

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Categories: Opinion, Politics, Public spending

11 Responses

  1. theo:

    I dont think they should be entitled to any tax payers money at all. They are supposed to be funded by there subscription fees. Conversely – if the coalition did cut these payments it would a good way to weaken the unions organisational skills etc and cashflow in the event of (and i agree with inevitable) strikes. I think the Coaltion should get the first hit in – and stop the union gravy train.

    05.09.2010 14:18 Reply

  2. Ed P:

    All subsidies should be stopped immediately – there can be absolutely no justification for supporting the unions as they oppose essential cuts. The funding from the DfID, (the so-called UMF) and from all major public bodies could be stopped easily. Local government support for union officials may take longer. So I’m asking my council (Sevenoaks, Kent) about this via a FOI request: any information released will be publicised in the local rag!

    05.09.2010 14:40 Reply

  3. Tom:

    Self evidently wrong – funding the unions like this. I would be interesting to dig a little more to discover how this situation actually arose – it’s not by accident I suspect. A breakdown of where they are and some detail on who sanctioned the payments would be a good start. I’d bet that it was a central strategy pushed out from Millbank… betcha…..

    05.09.2010 14:49 Reply

  4. Andrew Allison:

    Dave Mathieson, the UNITE convenor for Hull City Council, called for all councillors to take a 5% pay cut yesterday. This is because cabinet members will receive a 5% cut from January. Councillors have been on a pay freeze for 4 years, whilst Mr Mathieson has seen his pay increase. He is not willing to reduce his own salary, which of course is fully funded by taxpayers as his working week compromises of nothing but union work.

    05.09.2010 16:12 Reply

  5. Dave Atherton:

    As someome who had the gross misfortune to spend a few hours with a senior trade unionist from UNITE, my overriding impression was that he was a complete cock. Trade unions reduce real wages and increase unemployment and any accommodation, compromise or appeasement is anathema. Fight them on the beaches and the landing grounds I say.

    05.09.2010 17:53 Reply

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    05.09.2010 19:34 Reply

  7. Mike (England):

    well thats £67m worth of savings that can be made straight way, although of course it would mean an increase of 2,493 in the long term unemployment figures as not only would no company in their right minds employ these people but its quite likely that they are unemployable in the first place, if its done quickly it’ll give the unions something else to bitch about on the bbc instead of other cuts.

    06.09.2010 04:00 Reply

  8. Jeremy Poynton:

    Not to mention the Union Modernisation Fund, which I gather survived the election intact.

    Simples. If the Unions can afford to fund – nay, buy – Labour, then they don’t need a penny of public money.

    06.09.2010 04:06 Reply

  9. Julian H:

    They should, of course, cut every single penny of state funding for the unions immediately. But they won’t. We’ll keep moaning on blogs, and they’ll keep playing their schoozy politics in Westminster.

    07.09.2010 12:24 Reply

  10. Charles:

    Surely there is a tactical advantage in keeping them there for a moment, and when unions prove that they are unwilling to engage realistically on the need to reduce expenses then these can be cut.

    Taking them away immediately may just inflame the situation.

    Not disagreeing with the principle though

    11.09.2010 16:02 Reply

  11. Alex:

    I am not a union supporter or Labour voter, far from it, but your analysis is sloppy. Most of the “money” that you say is paid to the union (outside the UMF which I agree should not be there) is in fact an estimate of full-time equivalent staff numbers paid for employees who are union representatives. These are not usually union agitators but union reps who can generally help staff in organisational changes (TUPE rights), disciplinary matters and all other employee matters. Out of a total public sector salary bill of £175,000 million, spending less than 0.04% on staff representation is probably money well spent.

    24.09.2010 22:48 Reply

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