Tony Blair and Fairness at Work
Will Blair Follow the American Labor Union Model?
MAY 01, 1999 by CHARLES W. BAIRD
Tony Blair, prime minister of Great Britain, heads the “New Labour” Party. The old Labour Party was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the umbrella organization for most British unions. In 1976 Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan asserted that “no modern government can govern against the trade unions.” During the 1978–79 “Winter of Discontent,” the TUC and its constituents assaulted Britain with crippling strikes, violence, and sabotage. The electorate then elected Margaret Thatcher, who set about taming the unions through a series of statutes designed to make them subject to the ordinary rule of law and to protect workers against predatory union bosses.
In the early 1990s Blair began to repackage the Labour Party. New Labour would no longer take its orders from the TUC. It would favor entrepreneurship in the private marketplace, continue with the Conservative policy of privatization, and work in the interests of the increasingly affluent British middle class. Like his friend and mentor, Bill Clinton, Blair was a successful salesman. In 1997 he defeated John Major and became the first Labour Prime Minister in almost 18 years.
Blair resembles Clinton in another way—he favors compulsory unionism. In his foreword to a May 1998 white paper titled “Fairness at Work,” Blair assured his readers that “There will be no going back. The days of strikes without ballots, mass picketing, closed shops and secondary action are over.” The purpose of the white paper, he said, is “to replace the notion of conflict between employers and employees with the promotion of partnership.”
In the post-Thatcher status quo, there is no statutory requirement that employers recognize any union or even bargain with any union on the subject of recognition. Recognition is a matter of voluntary negotiations between employers and unions. Government doesn’t intervene in labor relations except to uphold the rule of law.
British unions supported this voluntary system of labor relations when they enjoyed the privileges and immunities granted to them in the Trade Disputes Act of 1906. From then until the 1980s British unions were exempted from all claims for damages arising out of labor disputes. Employers were subject to the rule of law, but unions were not. Unions used “blacking” (violence-enforced boycotts) and mass picketing to force employers to agree to closed-shop collective bargaining. Now that the Thatcher reforms have removed their privileges and immunities, the unions no longer like voluntarism. They want the Labour government to force employers to recognize and to bargain with them. Blair proposes to do exactly that—American-style.
Exclusive representation and mandatory collective bargaining are central to American labor-relations law. Exclusive representation is the imposition of union recognition on the basis of majority vote among workers. A union that wins such an election at a firm represents all the employees eligible to vote, even those who vote against the union. Mandatory bargaining means that an employer is forced to bargain with a union certified by majority vote, and during bargaining the employer must compromise with the union.
Apologists for exclusive representation argue that it is merely workplace democracy. The will of the majority rules in politics; so, they argue, it should also rule at the workplace. Mandatory bargaining is necessary because the whole purpose of union recognition is bargaining. Recognition without bargaining is meaningless.
Freedom of Association
These apologists conveniently forget that democracy is a form of government, not a rule for private decision-making. The classical liberal principle of freedom of association requires that in their private lives (1) all individuals (even employers) be free to choose to associate with other willing individuals for legal purposes, and (2) all individuals be free to choose not to do so. Exclusive representation and mandatory bargaining violate freedom of association. To be represented by a union is to associate with it. To have a union as a bargaining agent is to associate with it. To bargain with a union is to associate with it.
So what is Blair up to? Chapter Four of the white paper explains that the Labour government will propose legislation to force an employer to recognize a union “where a ballot shows that a majority of those [workers] voting and at least 40% of those eligible to vote are in favour of recognition.” Moreover, a union so recognized will represent all the workers in the “appropriate bargaining unit”—that is, all the workers eligible to vote. This is American-style exclusive representation. The White Paper also states, “Recognition will cover pay, hours and holidays.” In other words, recognition implies mandatory bargaining on those subjects.
In Annex 1 of the white paper the authors explain that the Central Arbitration Committee (CAC), a government agency, can determine whether a union has majority support among workers without a ballot. Once a bargaining unit is defined by the CAC, and if the employer does not voluntarily recognize a union seeking recognition, the CAC can compel recognition “if it is satisfied, having examined carefully suitable evidence from the union and, if he wishes, from the employer, that more than 50% of the bargaining unit are members of the union seeking recognition.” The CAC doesn’t have to consider evidence from the employer; it may compel recognition solely on the basis of union-provided evidence. The ballot procedure is used only when the CAC is unwilling to compel recognition without a ballot. The union evidence on which the CAC is to make its determination “might take the form of membership records or a petition signed by a sufficient number of employees.”
American unions have long tried to get Congress to amend the National Labor Relations Act to compel employers to recognize unions on the basis of signatures. Why? Union organizers collect signatures on a face-to-face basis, and they are not known for their gentle manners. It is much more difficult for workers to resist face-to-face organizers than to vote no in a secret ballot election.
However, the white paper does not propose to adopt American “union security.” American workers in unionized firms may be forced to pay union dues and fees as a condition of continued employment. This coercion is excused by saying that since a certified union must represent all workers in a bargaining unit, every worker should be forced to pay a share of the union’s operating costs, otherwise many workers would be free riders.
In the 1930s Senator Robert Wagner, the principal author of the National Labor Relations Act, advocated a “camel’s nose under the tent” strategy. First, make a few changes in the law, then a few more, and so on. Eventually your goal will be reached—the union-free tent will collapse. Given his affinity for the American model, could it be that Blair will impose union security once forced bargaining has been digested?