Saturday, 21 January 2012
Britain's union bosses (the Bubs) are always banging on about the need for healthy competition on the high street - and the benefits of cutting the big banks down to size.
But the unions are allowed to play by very different rules themselves - seems like they just keep on getting bigger and bigger - and growing in size.
The latest union merger on the cards is one between Unite and PCS (the civil service union) - both of whom are on a collision course with the government over public sector pensions.
A new union would have a combined membership of 1.8 million members - in effect a new super union would be created - which would dwarf second placed Unison with only 1.3 million members.
But of course Unison and GMB have already been in merger talks for some time - and if they agree to tie the knot - then only two unions would represent 3.6 million people - the bulk of the UK's union membership.
At a time when big monopoly suppliers of services - generally speaking - have acquired a pretty bad name for being able to dictate terms to their customers - because of the lack of choice and inability to take their business elsewhere.
The creation of these ever-bigger 'super-size' unions also has big implications for the Labour party.
Because as everyone knows the trade unions effectively decided the outcome of the recent Labour leadership elections - both Ed Miliband and Johann Lamont owe their positions to union votes - from GMB, Unison and Unite.
So in future only two Bubs may have this level of influence and if the trend continues, who knows - maybe there will be just one.
Now there are some arguments to be made for 'big is best' - including the usual ones about economies of scale and so forth.
But the problem with the trade union sector is that it is almost entirely unregulated - ordinary union members have nowhere to go if they have a complaint - in terms of an independent outside body at least.
If these mergers were taking place in the private sector - they would be referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission - which happened recently when News International trying to buy Sky TV.
In addition other parts of society - both public and private - what goes on is regulated by a whole host of public watchdogs - and while you can argue about their effectiveness in some cases - at least they exist.
Here's what I had to say on the subject back in November 2009.
Smaller Banks, Bigger Unions (November 6th 2009)
Much has been said - and written - this week about cutting the big high street banks down to size.
Apparently everyone now believes that smaller banks are good for us. Because smaller banks means more banks - that have to compete with one another - and the resulting competition is good for customers.
The big guy always finds it much harder to beat up on the little guy - if the little guy can just take his or her business elsewhere.
So far, so good - sounds reasonable enough.
But isn't it interesting that while the big banks are being forced to become smaller - to get closer to their customers - that trade unions in the UK are becoming ever larger and more remote from their members.
The latest move towards another super union - see post dated 16 September 2009 - is the planned merger between GMB and Unison - which would create a union of around 2 million members.
But Unison itself is the product of an arranged marriage of what used to be three separate unions - COSHE, NALGO and NUPE - which tied the knot to become Unison in 1993.
And this latest giant union is all about keeping up with the Joneses, in the shape of Unite - currently the largest union in the land with 1.9 million members - and itself the product of a previous merger between Amicus and the old transport union, TGWU.
The fact is that these new super unions are run just like giant businesses - except that they are not as well regulated as businesses - arguably they are subject to less scrutiny than your average corner shop.
In terms of service standards - ordinary union members do not have an independent body to turn to for support, if they have a problem or complaint - there is no equivalent of the Financial Services Ombudsman, for example.
In future, union members will get even less choice from these mega unions - which all give huge sums of money to the Labour Party - despite the fact that the great majority of union members support other parties - or no party at all.
The present government has no interest in making the union more accountable to their members - because the Labour Party is so heavily dependent on the trade unions for financial support.
But it will be interesting to see what happens after the next general election - maybe the unions will be forced to move with the times. A healthy dose of external and independent scrutiny - would certainly help the unions become more accountable to their members.