Whenever industrial action takes place in whatever form, it is those people in personnel departments that have work to do to keep that company, business or service running. It would therefore be logical to assume that the Tories’ upcoming Trade Union Bill would be widely supported by people in these personnel departments, possibly with their industry representatives actively speaking out in support of the bill. However, along with the TUC and many prominent figures on the Left like Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones, the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), whose members routinely have to deal with the implications of strike action by union members, oppose the Trade Union Bill.
In the 2015 Tory manifesto was a promise to curbs on trade unions’ right to strike, especially in the public sector; the recent disputes between London Underground and trade unions have renewed calls from the more militant Thatcherites on the Conservative backbenches. It is these same people that also argue that the perceived impending election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader is proof of the main Tory opposition reverting to 1980s-style militancy, which is why such curbs are necessary. However the irony is not pointed out to them that a Conservative government clamping down on trade unions would actually be the same reversion to 1980s policies.
The main reason behind the CIPD’s opposition to the bill is because, like centre-right governments in other countries like Germany who recognise the important role trade unions play in the economy, they are aware of the facts regarding the number of days lost as a result of industrial action. In the last year of Thatcher’s premiership there were 1.9 million days lost due to strikes and throughout her time in office it was not uncommon for the number to be significantly higher; in 2014 the number of days lost, according to the Office of National Statistics, was 788,000. The exponential growth in days lost to industrial action over the last few years in result of Tory policies which are provoking trade unions; it is not because, as the Tories would have people believe, the trade union movement is just as militant as it was at the height of the Miners’ Strike.
I would contend that rather than being Machiavellian masterminds who since taking power in 2010 have been provoking unions to drum up support for further union suppression laws, the Tories are reactionaries who after seeing the growth in strike numbers believe they have found a political opportunity. The problem with this plan is that the CIPD’s members have to deal with the unions on a daily basis, often through negotiations and compromise based on mutual trust; consequently the professionals who interact with trade unions don’t recognise the caricature that requires suppression.
Practically speaking the CIPD should be agnostic on the proposal, because the bill wouldn’t change the trust that exists union representatives and the CIPD’s members, or should support the bill as the organisation’s members are on the front-line in mitigating the impact of strikes. The reason they oppose the government is because they recognise that all the bill would do is politicise union members further and damage industrial relations. To clarify, the CIPD isn’t now marching in the streets to The Red Flag, the opposition to the government exists because the organisation, who has to sustain good relations with ministers, has no need to support a government policy it sees as an offering of red-meat to the right-wing elements of the Tory base.