Right now, only about a quarter of the UK workforce are members of a union. In the private sector, it's fewer than one in seven. Union members are better paid, more likely to have secure, permanent employment contracts and enjoy better working conditions than non-unionised workers.
As these advantages are frequently the result of action by trade unions, they make it possible for political opponents to paint established labour rights – particularly the right to strike – as mainly serving the interests of comparatively privileged groups.
A massive 21% of Londoners earn below the London Living Wage of £9.40 per hour, which is equal to an annual salary of around £18,570. Understandably, then, many find it difficult to sympathise with striking Tube drivers when they read that they take home more than two-and-a-half times that amount. Particularly if, as many low earners do, they rely on the Underground for the long daily commute from the cheaper outer suburbs of the capital.
It won't actually benefit lower-paid workers if Tube drivers are forced to accept the worsened working conditions they're currently opposing, but the government has managed to capitalise on the resentment to push forward with a Trade Union Bill designed to undermine the right to strike. What's more, this divide-and-rule strategy distracts from the fact that, often, people earning the lowest wages are the ones who have most to gain from industrial action.
In normal circumstances, the power balance between employers and employees is deeply unequal. Take the retail industry for example, where most workers earn little more than minimum wage and many are kept on zero-hour contracts regardless of how many hours they actually work. In this situation, people have two possible choices: suck it up, or refuse to work until their employer agrees to treat them more fairly.
If they try the second option independently, it's unlikely to be very effective. Probably, they'll soon find themselves out of a job. If a large number of workers do the same thing, the situation may change, depending on the circumstances. In some specialist fields, an employer might struggle to find qualified replacements. In a sector such as retail, the UK's 5.4% unemployment rate means they could theoretically have a brand-new workforce the next day.
The effectiveness of striking depends on legislation which prevents employers simply bringing in substitute staff. This is most important for the lowest-paid workers, as they're often the ones most vulnerable to being replaced.
With the Trade Union Bill, the Conservative government is attempting to reverse a 40-year prohibition against using temporary staff to break strikes. If they get their way, they'll take away the one major bargaining chip available to workers attempting to fight for rights as basic as a wage they can afford to live on and an assurance they'll get sufficient hours of work from one week to the next.
The industries where low wages and job insecurity proliferate do not currently have high levels of union representation, but protecting the right to strike is vital so that future progress is possible.
Two years ago, workers at the Hovis bakery in Wigan demonstrated what can potentially be achieved. Thanks to anti-strike-breaking legislation, their employer was forced to listen when they went on strike against the use of agency staff on zero-hour contracts in the wake of redundancies and cuts to the pay and hours of permanent employees. Had the Trade Union Bill been law at that time, it's doubtful they'd have won their battle.
Eroding the right to strike helps nobody except employers who want to get away with offering employees as little as possible. Tube drivers being forced to work antisocial hours without fair compensation won't make it any easier for retail workers to pay their rent. Underpaying junior doctors won't put money in the pockets of factory employees or call centre staff. The answer is to pull the people at the bottom up, not to drag those in the middle down closer to their level.
The most pernicious thing about the Conservative attack on employment rights is that those who stand to suffer the most – low-paid, insecure workers in desperate need of union support – are unlikely to realise until it's too late.