“Industrial relations” are back at the heart of politics””not as an old-fashioned clash between capital and labour, fought out so brutally in the Thatcherite 1980s, but as one between taxpayers and what William Cobbett, one of the great British liberals, used to refer to as “tax eaters”. People in the private sector are only just beginning to understand how much of a banquet public-sector unions have been having at everybody else’s expense…. In many rich countries wages are on average higher in the state sector, pensions hugely better and jobs far more secure. Even if many individual state workers do magnificent jobs, their unions have blocked reform at every turn. In both America and Europe it is almost as hard to reward an outstanding teacher as it is to sack a useless one.
While union membership has collapsed in the private sector over the past 30 years (from 44% of the workforce to 15% in Britain and from 33% to 15% in America), it has remained buoyant in the public sector. In Britain over half the workers are unionised. In America the figure is now 36% (compared with just 11% in 1960). In much of continental Europe most civil servants belong to unions, albeit ones that straddle the private sector as well. And in public services union power is magnified not just by strikers’ ability to shut down monopolies that everyone needs without seeing their employer go bust, but also by their political clout over those employers.