Claire Berlinski isn’t an expert on labor unions, she’s an expert on Margaret Thatcher. So why am I writing about her? Because of her great article in the City Journal regarding Thatcher’s 1980 Employment Act. Berlinski writes:
When Thatcher was elected in 1979, Britain had just endured a winter of discontent—a season of strikes and trade union agitation so severe that the nation stood effectively paralyzed. Food supplies were interrupted, whole industries choked, and exports fell. “We don’t want to increase our trade with you,” said the Soviet trade minister to his British counterpart. “You’re always on strike.” Rubbish piled up on the streets that winter; at one point, so did human corpses. This was what had become of a nation that was once the world’s greatest trading power.
For obvious reasons, Thatcher put reform of the trade union law at the top of her agenda. Among the key provisions of Britain’s 1980 Employment Act was a change in the way government would recognize unions. At the time, workers voted to join unions—or not—in public, by voice vote. Dissenters suffered harassment and physical intimidation. Henceforth, Thatcher decided, new union membership agreements would require approval by means of a secret ballot in order to protect rank-and-file workers from bullying by union organizers. If allowed to vote secretly, she believed, ordinary workers would not vote for policies against their long-term interests—such as pay raises so incommensurate with production as to render British businesses uncompetitive, or strikes so prolonged as to make even the Soviets unwilling to buy British goods.