frontline 11

Trade Unions in Britain: challenges and prospects

Frontline has carried a number of articles recently about the prospects for trade-union struggle in Scotland and the rest of the UK. In this article Gregor Gall contributes to the debate, we hope to carry some reaction to Gregor's points in upcoming issues of Frontline. Gregor is a member of the SSP and a lecturer in trade-union studies at Stirling University.

Notwithstanding the welcome recent election of left-wing leaders, unions in Britain face huge challenges. Opinion polls have consistently shown that people think unions are 'good things' but they also think they're 'too weak to make a difference' in their workplaces. There is a gap between the aspiration and the reality.

Membership stood at 13.5m (55% density) in 1979. In 2002, it was 7.3m (29% density). This is despite the decline stopping in 1998 and small increases in 1999, 2000 and 2002, following greater efforts to recruit and organise. Public sector density is 61% and private sector density 19%, reflecting the growth of non-unionism in the private sector and continuing manufacturing redundancies.

In 1979, there were 500,000 union reps. Today there are 230,000. Union organisation has been severely weakened, the exceptions being some workplaces in the public and ex-public sector, such as the Royal Mail, some hospitals, some local government councils and the railways.

Collective bargaining coverage has fallen from 70% of the workforce in 1984 to 36% in 2001, in spite of 2,500 new recognition deals covering 1.1m workers since 1995 as a result of the spread of the 'organising culture'. Some 3m workers are 'free riders' – benefiting from collective bargaining without being union members, while 1.7m union members are not covered by union recognition.

Strike activity, a key measure of workers' collective confidence, has fallen from 2125 strikes in 1979 (with 4.6m workers involved and 29.4m days 'lost'), to 146 in 2002 (with 0.94m workers involved and 1.32m days 'lost'). No amount of special pleading can deny the reality of this. The only real blip on this downward path was the 1984-1985 miners' strike.

Occasional large strikes (1996 – postal workers, 2002 - English council workers, and the fire fighters) have merely temporarily dented the continuing decline. Solidarity strikes are almost unheard of now. Unofficial strikes have fallen from 95% of all strikes to 40% of all strikes.

Membership participation in unions is low, whether judged by voting in internal elections, attendance at meetings or the reading of newsletters. Most members see their membership as a business transaction: they pay their dues and expect service in return, without themselves becoming actively involved in protecting their interests.

All of this means that employer power (private or state) to determine employment conditions, as well as wider issues in society, has increased dramatically. Unions were powerful in the 1960s and 1970s, although they did not 'run the country' as some commentators allege.

This overall union decline puts recent advances, like the RMT's decision to support parties other than Labour, into context. It highlights the extent of the decline and the extent of the challenge to reverse it.

Scotland fares not that differently from other parts of Britain. Union membership and strike activity are slightly higher than the national average, but not any higher compared to regions like the north-west of England or Yorkshire.

Explaining the decline

In the space of twenty years, unions in Britain have gone from being relatively powerful to being relatively weak. Understanding why this has happened is important to understanding how unions can rebuild their influence in the future.

There are two key periods to consider: 1974-1979 and 1979-1997. Unions entered the period of the 1974-1979 Labour government as strong, confident and growing organisations. But by 1979, when membership reached its peak they had been significantly weakened, ill-preparing themselves for Thatcherism. What happened?

In return for limited reforms and influence, and the continuation of an increasingly weak Labour government, they agreed to a 'Social Contract' with Labour to keep pay increases down while inflation rose to protect the 'national interest'. This culminated in the fire fighters' 1977 strike and the 'Winter of Discontent' of 1978-1979, where low paid workers went on strike.

Workers went on strike against 'their' government, leading to disorientation, disorganisation and demobilisation. Many voted Tory in 1979. From 1979, a series of events took their toll.

Employers and the Tory government launched an offensive against the unions. In industry, 'macho managers' supported by the government reasserted their managerial prerogative. Militants were sacked and unions faced down.

Mass unemployment and industrial closures weakened the heartlands of union organisation. In a series of key strikes (e.g. steel 1981, miners 1984, Wapping 1985, P&O 1988), employers defeated the best organised workers. Further demoralisation set in.

This weakness was accentuated by a procession of anti-unions laws (1980, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1990) designed to stop unions implementing the principle of 'an injury to one is an injury to all', i.e. taking solidarity and secondary action. Unions faced fines and sequestration for acting out with the law.

What is important to understand is that the Tory years represented a downswing in industrial struggle, where employers launched a successful offensive. This was successful because of the political and organisational demoralisation and retreat that had set in. But this does not fully explain the decline. What did the unions do in response?

At first, their leaders talked tough, for example, threatening mass strikes and disobedience against the 1980 anti-union law. But the leaderships' respect for the law, supported by their own demoralisation, won out. Unions then expected Thatcher to lose the 1983 election. The impact of the Falklands' war was critical in overturning this.

After this, and the miners' defeat, 'new realism' became the union leaders' ideology (with the exception of Scargill). Unions were believed to be unable to stop the attacks on their own. Instead, they had to work for Labour's return to change the balance of forces and this meant 'not rocking the boat', i.e. not do things that might lose Labour the election like promoting strikes.

The very types of laws that were flouted in the early 1970s were then obeyed in the 1980s. It was not the laws in themselves that weakened the unions but their fatalistic subservience to them. Such was the general air of demoralisation, unions leaders would not countenance organising mass resistance. Alongside this, new industries and sectors were not organised as they had been in the past.

The key lesson of the 1980s was that unions did not combine to fight collectively in a sufficiently robust way. Success would not have necessarily been guaranteed but without trying defeat was.

Strategies to Regain Power

Unions today are in a much better position than for many years. Membership has stopped falling, new left-wing leaders have been elected, the series of strike defeats of the 1980s is behind us, and some new supportive legislation exists. But these on their own are insufficient to make a substantial difference to rebuilding and to unions protecting and advancing workers' interests. There are several key areas where urgent action is needed.

Greater financial and physical resources need to be put into recruitment, retention and organising. New members and new recognition agreements are needed in drove, not dribbles. Currently, the TUC's 'Organising Academy' and the spread of the 'organising culture', though welcome, are insufficient to the task. Unions need to spend 30%, not 5%, of their income on these.

Existing members must be encouraged to participate more in open, devolved and transparent union structures. Open, devolved and transparent structures need to be fought for. Members must not view their union as an insurance policy but an active living being. The old adage that 'unions are their members' is true. Unions still remain too 'male, pale and stale'.

Education about what unions and collectivism are and can do needs to take place within unions much more if members' consciousness and understanding are to be raised. Workers and unions need to understand that membership mobilisation is the critical factor in successfully pursuing relatively ambitious demands.

Unions also desperately need some high-profile victories to 'sell' their wares and re-establish their credibility. While unions have proven themselves good advocates of the need to protect the poor and downtrodden, they have few concrete examples of victories by which to demonstrate how this can be done.

Collective mobilisation, and ultimately, striking need to be encouraged. Strike activity remains pitifully low. With 7m members, unions should be visually present on the streets if their presence is to be felt. More needs to be won in strikes like the recent BA dispute. More needs to be made of the few successes like the medical secretaries' and hospital workers' strikes. Therefore, industrially unions must recreate the activism, vigour and confidence of before.

Politically, unions also face huge challenges. Whether affiliated to Labour or not, unions need to fully mobilise to bring about political and legislative change. Repeal of the anti-union laws, removal of the restrictions on the union recognition law, fuller workplace rights from day one of employment are all needed. So too is ending PFI and the practice of contracting out.

The key to doing so lies not in unions operating through the Labour Party, where its structures are now designed to stop grassroots influence, but in the industrial sphere.

Organising and mobilising their membership throughout Britain in extra-parliamentary activity is critical to play to the unions' strength to pressurise the Labour government. Only if done in this way can unions benefit from the changes they have forced. Repeal of the anti-union laws will not in itself lead to more strikes and successful strikes. Neither will better recognition laws in themselves lead to more union recognition. Workers need to win back their collective confidence for this to happen.

The Role of Socialists in Rebuilding

As socialists, we recognise the central role of trade unions and the collective power of workers at work in not only the socialist project, but also in winning reforms and raising consciousness. Socialists should aim to become the best trade union fighters and organisers in addition to explicitly building socialist organisations.

But so serious is the decline in union presence and power that all socialists must give their trade union work particular attention and do so in specific ways. The decline will hold back any advances we make and those of workers generally. These advances will be all the weaker if we do not increase our influence amongst a growing band of trade unionists who are much more self-confident. Otherwise our advances will be built on very shaky foundations. In order for this to happen, all socialists must work especially hard to increase union membership, re-establish union organisation, encourage membership participation, and help regain membership confidence.

Concretely, this means a lot of mundane work and hard slogging, outside the more interesting times of being involved in strikes and solidarity work. Thus, all socialists must work towards initiating, rather than just supporting, union campaigns and struggles over pay, job cuts, work intensification, partnerships with management etc. Socialists must help build union organisation through recruiting new members, gaining the participation of existing members, helping win union recognition for non-union workplaces, developing union policies and ensuring their implementation. Of course, this must also involve standing for and winning union leadership positions such as branch officers and shop steward, in order to counter- manage by providing direction to their members in policy, strategy and tactics.

In the current situation, socialists can now work with the new generation of left-wing leaders, and hold them to account in terms of the key tasks outlined above: revitalising union organisation, increasing resources given over to recruitment, standing up to employers and taking campaigning leads over various issues.

Importantly, this means initiating campaigns and struggles that are not 'party' campaigns in order to provide leadership, ideas and organisation to champion the interests of union members within the unions. In this way, socialists can win respect for themselves by being among the best, if not the best, trade unionists. 'Party' campaigns can then be run from a solid base of support for socialists in the unions. Socialists can then without reproach raise the issue of democratisation of the political fund and challenge the grip that Labour Party members have on the union movement.

In all of this, a sense of perspective is needed. We need to understand just how far back unions have been pushed and that two swallows do not make a summer. To argue to the contrary merely risks alienating some and demoralising others.