frontline 18.

Trade union activism in Britain: crisis in capacity and ideology

Professor Gregor Gall, of Edinburgh North and Leith SSP and Professor of Industrial Relations, University of Hertfordshire looks at the current state of trade union activism in Britain.

We are all familiar with the contemporary decline in the membership, bargaining power and political influence of trade unionism in Britain. The figure for union density in 2004 was 28.8%, having previously been 55% in 1979. Some time ago, it stopped being sufficient to merely identify what was wrong with the union movement in Britain by mapping out the contours of decline - the onus then quite rightly shifted to starting to put forward specific solutions to the problems the movement faced other than returning the Labour Party to office.

Today, however, it is now insufficient to simply put forward strategies to try to get the union movement out of its current, but prolonged, crisis. This is because it is incumbent upon any proponent of any strategy to have at hand, or at least identify, the social forces that are capable of implementing such strategies. Indeed, proponents should set out a plan for the implantation of their strategies. Otherwise, such strategies remain the proverbial ‘pipe dream’. There are far too many sympathetic commentators and union movement thinkers who simply put forward ideas for union renewal and reinvigoration which run along the lines of ‘the unions should do this’ and ‘the unions should do that’ whether with regard to social partnership (at micro- or macro-level), union organising, employment law reform, ‘fighting back’, renewing militancy and class struggle, or reclaiming the Labour Party. ‘Unions’ or a ‘union’ are not singular, homogeneous bodies that can be commanded to do ‘x’ or ‘y’. Rather, they are the sum of members, activists and full-time officers who engaged in different levels of contestation over policy and action, and from different ideological stances. What unions do is the outcome of human agency and process.

Lay Activist Cadre

So aside from any deficiencies in the cogency and credibility of the strategies put forward, the crux of this matter here is that such advocates do not command the social forces that are capable of compelling workers, unions, political parties, business, government and the state to act as they wish in these regards. Or put another way, those who support the various strategies, that is the networks surrounding them, do not embody or represent the requisite social forces to implement them. Indeed, they essentially all call on others to act.

This brings centre-stage the issue of the activist milieu within the unions. It is hard to conceive of any other substitute for the lieutenants of the ‘rank-and-file’ who are the roots of the union movement. Twenty to thirty years ago, there were around 500,000 shop stewards and branch secretaries, providing an active union presence in most workplaces. Combined and district committees and trades councils were relatively common and vibrant. Such networks allowed different workers in different unions to be bound together in a rich and forceful tapestry. Now we are down to around 230,000 lay activists, a small but significant proportion of which are union learning reps rather than shop stewards. Consequently, many workplaces with a union presence do not have active union reps or such numbers of active union reps to provide effective representation. Moreover, it is often difficult to talk of local union movements, where such previous networks have either atrophied or become moribund. Those that remain active, holding the structures together, are increasingly old. The weakness of an organised workplace presence means that the foundations of the union movement are weak.

But discussing the state of the activist base of the union movement cannot be confined to just the dimension of quantity, that is, numbers of activists and amounts of activity, for there is also the aspect of the quality of the activists and their activities. This centrally concerns the ideology of the activists; their motivation to be active and the ends which they are pursuing. All union activists are motivated by a struggle against workplace injustice. Some are motivated by the search for social justice outside the workplace as well. And some of these see their worldviews in terms of social democracy and socialism. There are a number of important issues here.

The first is that not all union members who desire social justice within and without the workplace are activists. At the lowest level of ideological self-motivation and activity of union members is the instrumentalism of those who merely desire representation and protection if the need should arise. Essentially as individuals, they buy into collective provision. In the past, a greater sense of collective and solidaristic consciousness amongst workers would have led to many of these members acting more as collectivist-thinking and acting members.

The second is that most union activists are increasingly just union activists. Previously, the meshing together of union activists with membership and activity in Constituency Labour Parties, the Communist Party and various Trotskyist organisations was marked. Union activists who were not members of such organisations were often in the orbit of such organisations. The salience of this is several-fold. Without a greater ideological motivation, lay union activism has become increasingly isolated and internalised. Moreover, the dominant narrow historical focus of trade unionism on the workplace has been accentuated at a time when the withered roots of trade unionism suggest a more external orientation on other social movements is required to supplement the depleted resources of trade unions.

The third is that the size of the left milieu (Labour, Communist, Trotskyist) is now considerably smaller than it previously was. This has had a demoralising and disillusioning impact on those that remain politically inspired union activists and acted as an obstacle to those that might potentially join this milieu. Fourth, the decline in politically-motivated union activists has also meant that the links between different workers, unions and campaigns is now considerably weaker than it was. Indeed, it is non-existent in many areas.

So to summarise so far, one of the most important weakness of the contemporary union movement concerns the decline of the politically motivated union lay activist, of which there are a number of dimensions. These all coalesce around the current crisis in the capacity and ideology of union activists. Welcome as ‘union organising’ is, no matter the number of union organisers appointed by unions is, they cannot substitute themselves for lay activist cadre, for even if they were not supposed to they have often done so.

Where to Now?

From the position of (full-time) union leaderships, ‘union organising’ is a rational but nonetheless necessarily limited and technocratic attempt to remedy a pressing problem. The problem is much larger and of a more complex nature. Shop stewards and lay activists of the previous ‘golden ages’ represented the cadre of one of the original social movements, and of an ascendant social movement. Such a social movement cannot be rebuild in a top-down, bureaucratic way. So where might new forces come from?

Could a revival in social democracy provide a new tranche of politically inspired union activists? Notwithstanding the weakening of Blairism before and after the 2005 general election, the continuing decomposition of social democracy in Britain means that there is little prospect of such a revival of social democracy as of yet. The Labour Representation Committee was launched a few years ago but judged by the attendance at its annual conferences, and the number of affiliated organizations and local groups does not seem to be making much headway. It only really exists in a meaningful way as an annual conference and as a network of left MPs and union full-time officers.

However, if trade unionists were to be able to spearhead the effective recolonisation of the structures of social democracy because there is a realisation that trade unionism must become a more effective political force, the possibility of a growth in the number of politicised union activists might ensue.

But there are so many ‘if and buts’ along the way which make this trajectory highly contingent upon other events as to suggest it is improbable. For instance, the few signs of a political reawakening of social democracy in trade unions, like the form of the Labour Representation Committee, have yet to cohere into an effective intellectual project with a cutting edge and reinforced by social weight. None of the so-called ‘awkward squad’ of new general secretaries has set out an alternative worldview or political vision centred on an alternative economic strategy to back up their socially progressive positions on various issues stances. For instance, the ‘fighting back’ position of the TGWU and the writings of Tony Woodley in the Guardian, the Morning Star and Tribune, though welcome, do not constitute a credible intellectual left vision. Such a task is equally incumbent upon Bob Crow, Mark Sertwotka and Matt Wrack as non-Labour lefts. British trade unionism lacks a ‘ParEcon’ (of Mike Albert fame).


One potential source is the indigenous component of the global social justice or anti-capitalism movement. Its activists are often large in number and highly motivated, practiced in new ways of operating collectively. Another potential source, and one which overlaps to some extent with the social justice movement, are the social capital and progressive aspirations bound up in community organisations, of which community councils, tenants’ organisations and TELCO are the best examples (although TELCO type organisations can also be found in Birmingham and elsewhere concerned with maintaining public housing and public care homes).

Can these social justice activists be recruited to trade unionism? Not without great difficulty would be the simple answer. First, they are unlikely to be recruited into trade unionism as it quintessentially exists at the moment. The problem here is not just that the unions are ‘too male, pale and stale’ but that there is a lack of autonomy to local union structures where these new activists might locate themselves and a lack of wider, external community orientation of trade unionism. So trade unionism would have to change to meet them half-way. Second, these social justice activists lack an understanding of what trade unionism is, on the one hand, and of democratic accountability and accountable collectivism, on the other. Learning about these aspects is thus needed. To date, the engagement of unions with these social justice milieux has been very limited: the activities of Leftfield, Wandsworth and Batteresea TUC and GMB London region here do not constitute a serious orientation. More broadly, the foci and aims of trade unionism and these social justice organisations are different. The former have both wider and narrower constituencies of interests and members as well as higher and lower level objectives than trade unionism. But there is some degree of overlap if trade unionism reconstitutes and recasts its appeal and form as a social liberation movement. Members’ collective interests would thus be more widely defined in terms of being producers, consumers and citizens with equality, democracy, social justice and liberty comprising the value system.