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Matthew Sinclair: Unions aren't the little platoons the Big Society needs, they're creatures of big government that could doom localism

Rob Halfon has done so much great work for the conservative movement, standing up for Israel and to bolster the defence of free markets.  At the election, the people of Harlow showed their appreciation for all the hard work he does there.

I think he made a mistake in his article yesterday on the unions though.  I believe the source for his claim that union members “are eight times more likely to engage in voluntary work and give to their members” is the TUC report Unions in the Community: a survey of union reps.  If so, he has misinterpreted the results.

The report actually looks at union reps, not members, and even the union reps aren't eight times as likely to engage in voluntary work.  The report says that: "Union reps were nearly three times as active in terms of volunteering and more than eight times as active in terms of civic participation."  Civic participation means political campaigns, for good and bad causes.  Helping to organise an SWP anti-war rally would count for example.  I don't think it would surprise many people that union reps are quite politically engaged.  The most popular voluntary role was being a school governor and there is an obvious interest there in promoting the objectives of teaching unions, in particular.

It is understandable that some conservatives are looking to make friends with the unions, but they're going to be dissapointed.  Rob cites the statistic that lots of union members vote Conservative.  What is there to like about an organisation that represents lots of people who will vote for you, but gives huge amounts of money to your opponents?

Union memberships are increasingly concentrated in the public sector.  In 2009, public sector workers went on strike for fifteen times as many days each, on average, as those in the private sector.  They are throwing everything they can at stopping attempts to restore fiscal sanity.  Name an aggresive left-wing campaign against cuts and you'll find union money at the bottom of it.  They can afford that kind of spending partly because they have an activist base of 2,500 full time equivalent workers paid for by taxpayers, as our research showed last year.  The Guido Fawkes blog has uncovered two examples of what those activists get up to, here and here.

The real danger is that unions are such a powerful vested interests that they will be able to pervert attempts to localise power.  Proponents of localism like to point to the example of Switzerland, where so many things work so well.  Opponents, except some of the more starry eyed Cameroons, tend to point to the fiscal oblivion California is facing.  California has a number of problems but, as Troy Senik wrote for the journal National Affairs, powerful public sector unions are critical:

"The most egregiously coddled of the state's favored constituencies are California's public labor unions. This is partly the result of their bloated ranks: The percentage of unionized public employees in California is 20% higher than the national average. Even more important, though, is the unions' outsized influence. Awarded collective bargaining rights with nearly every sector of government during the 1960s and '70s, the unions subsequently exploded into a political force to be reckoned with and a primary cause of California's fiscal hemophilia."

For a taste of how the unions use their power here, read Fraser Nelson and Ed Howkers' account of how the teachers' unions are fighting free schools.  These big political battalions can be a frightening enemy for any little platoons who want to do something like establish a new school.

There are plenty of public sector workers, members of unions or not, who understand the need for spending cuts, or who are willing to consider public service reforms like free schools.  Union institutions, on the other hand, are the power behind the "no cuts" brigade trying to derail the fiscal adjustment and invariably implacable opponents to serious reform.  They are entitled to their views but they shouldn't enjoy expensive support at taxpayers' expense, and there is no sense in pretending they are our friends.


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