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Without unions, folks would need to take better jobs!

Jesus Christ. So what if it's a tight job market. You can't just quit your existing job and take one you like better!

Why? Because I said so! Let's sing it!

The United Kingdom Goes on Strike

What happens when unions have a chokehold on essential services.

By The Editorial Board

Dec. 26, 2022 4:37 pm ET

American politicians are looking with new favor on labor unions, even when they have a chokehold over the economy. For a taste of how that works in practice, take a look at the wave of strikes paralyzing the United Kingdom.

Britain has suffered at least one strike on most days in December. It started with teachers, some bus drivers and postal workers. Then rail workers, postal workers (again) and some bureaucrats picketed. Then more rail strikes, and walkouts by airport immigration officers that inconvenienced thousands of people trying to visit family over the holidays. More rail strikes are scheduled for January.

Most shameful are the healthcare strikes, which have seen nurses and ambulance workers walk off the job and are set to be repeated next month. In theory these aren’t supposed to disrupt emergency care, but the government-run National Health Service is stretched thin as it fails as usual to cope with seasonal cold-weather ailments and a post-Covid backlog of surgeries and other treatments. Better not get sick or suffer an accident.

How this national disgrace has been allowed to happen is a cautionary tale. A previous Conservative government under Prime Minister David Cameron thought it had ended unions’ ability to paralyze the country. A 2016 law required at least 50% participation for a strike ballot to be valid and set a higher threshold for strike ballots in essential services.

Yet that law left too many loopholes, especially failing to define an “essential public service” as broadly as most European governments do. Too many Britons also still work for the government or might as well do so given the government’s close ties to nominally private employers. Direct government employment accounted for 16% of the U.K. labor force as of 2019, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, compared to 15% in the U.S. But a much higher proportion of U.K. public employees work for the national government (61%) compared to the U.S. (19%).

This misses British workers employed by nominally private firms such as train companies or Royal Mail (which was privatized in 2011). These companies are subject to extensive fare or postage regulations and government-imposed service standards and are at least partly shielded from competition.

All of this frees unions to make demands without worrying about the commercial viability of their employers—the biggest restraint on private-sector unions. Politicians are dragged into the negotiations, which is especially unhelpful when employers hope to secure productivity improvements such as more efficient work rules in exchange for higher wages. When the politicians are Conservatives and the union bosses support the opposition Labour Party, the unions have special incentive not to cooperate.

On top of which, the unions might have a point about pay. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Chancellor Jeremy Hunt appear to hope that freezing nominal government-employee pay will help balance the government’s books. Employees aren’t unreasonable for being unhappy about that, but the government’s footprint in the labor market is so big that it’s impossible to say what their skills would be worth in a freer economy. That leaves Messrs. Sunak and Hunt to haggle with unions that can bring the economy to a standstill.

Memo to American politicians: Whatever else a bloated and unionized government workforce might do, it can’t make the trains run on time. Or, in Britain, run at all.

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