The trade union movement is one of the finest political steps forward this country has ever taken. If we did not have it, the likes of us, working class men and women, would probably still be sweeping chimneys with all the hazards and inequality it entailed. Although there have been dark days, the progress in terms and conditions for working people since the 1900s are amongst the most significant in our social and industrial history.
In the 80s I served as branch secretary for 500 members in the postal union, which back then was the Union of Communication Workers. At conferences I would rub shoulders with a very young Alan Johnson, the impressive Tony Clarke (who became Lord Clarke and unfortunately got himself tangled up in the expenses row) and an even younger Billy Hayes from Liverpool who is now the current postal union leader.
Thatcher’s reforms gave the unions back to their members
Not many of those I named above would agree with me that the Thatcher trade union reforms were probably her finest political achievement.
Union militancy in the 1970s and early 80s crippled the country. Excessive wage demands backed up by wildcat strikes and walkouts along with Labour's high tax rates damaged our economy. It made Britain a complete basket case in terms of attracting any inward investment by the private sector or indeed overseas investors. So reform was badly needed.
One consequence of the reforms was that the unions were given back to their members. Ballots were a legal requirement, as were notice for strike action, and secondary picketing was outlawed.
Industrial relations improved, the economy was transformed and tax rates liberalized; the rest as they say is history - but there is no doubt, trade union reform was vital to Britain's economic recovery in the 1980s.
"We're all in it together"?
In recent years, the days lost to strike action in the British economy has begun to rise steadily.
Under the banner of ‘we’re all in it together’, the public sector has come under major scrutiny, borne the burden of deficit reduction and therefore had some justification for their industrial action.
There are still so many obstacles to overcome in Britain. Zero contract hours, a living wage, enforcement of the minimum wage, fair paternity and maternity leave, I could go on.
However, instead of developing a co-operative industrial relations strategy the Conservatives have announced that their approach will be a confrontational one with the trade unions. The battleground, and they imagine vote winner, is trade union ballots.
Conservatives: Unfair changes to strike action
The Conservatives propose that a strike will not have legitimacy if 40% of its union members do not vote for it. Is this fair? No it is not.
The Thatcher reforms meant members decided by secret ballot whether strike action should be taken; and that is how it should be.
Each member has the right to vote or not to vote. As someone once said, "elections are determined by those that show up", that sentiment extends to all votes not just trade union ballots.
Only 15 of the current Conservative Members of Parliament were elected with more than 40% of the vote. The Conservatives flagship Police and Crime Commissioners have all been elected on less than a 15% turnout but I don’t see the Conservatives proposing to scrap them or not recognise their legitimacy.
So long as all trade union members, just like the wider electorate at elections has the right to vote, then a vote is legitimate should some of them choose not to.
These proposals are a vindictive attempt to undermine trade unions and effectively ban strike action, which every working person in an organised, democratic and lawful trade union has the right to exercise.
If the Conservatives want better industrial relations, and to continue to grow the British economy, perhaps they should spend their time rooting out unscrupulous employers, promoting the legal enforcement of the minimum wage and working across all parties and sectors of the economy to establish a living wage, fairness and protections for all.
If they do, my experience is that not many trade union members would have the appetite to go on strike in the first place.