Sunday, 2 September 2012

Trade unions: patterns and prospects

The annual TUC congress approaches. Trade unions are mobilising for what is expected to be one of Britain’s biggest ever trade union demonstrations on 20 October, showing mass popular opposition to austerity. Yet the biggest dispute for a generation – over public sector pensions – has suffered a series of setbacks. This article is an attempt to take a step back from the struggle and put current developments in a longer-term framework.  

Long-term difficulties

Trade unions remain the indispensable defence organisations of working people in Britain, as elsewhere. But, over the last three decades or so, neo-liberalism has impacted on union membership, infrastructure and levels of strike action in a number of ways. Successive waves of high unemployment have eroded membership. The big set-piece battles which characterised the 1980s, part of the wider neoliberal offensive against the working class, damaged the unions.

Some older industries have been destroyed or eroded, taking concentrations of union members with them. Newer or growing sectors of the economy have tended to have weak union organisation. Temporary work, part-time work and low-paid work are all areas where employees are less likely to be in a union, though there are of course examples of successful union building in even the most unpromising circumstances.   

The restructuring of the economy over the last 30 years has resulted in a high proportion of workers being non-unionised. However, developments in the economy – and the attendant re-composition of the working class – have also affected patterns of union membership. Most notably, a high proportion of today’s union members are women.

Anti-union laws have played their part in undermining union combativity. For example, secondary picketing has long been a matter for historians not news reporters. The Miners’ Strike in the 1980s illustrated this: whereas secondary action had been critical in 1972 (the ‘glorious summer’ of the 1970s working class upturn) it was invisible in 1984-85.

The legislation has crippled the unions in general, but just as importantly it has increased the power of the bureaucracy and weakened the rank and file. It has served to discipline ordinary union members.

We shouldn’t, though, conclude that it is entirely objective or economic factors that explain union weaknesses. Defeats in the 1980s were avoidable and can be explained as much by the conservatism of union leaders, Labour leaders’ treachery, failures to deliver legitimate solidarity action and political weaknesses as much as anything else. The long-term patterns in the unions can only be understood through an intersection of objective and subjective factors.

Falling membership
Trade union membership peaked in 1980 at 13 million people. Now it is roughly half that. The sharpest decline was during the 1980s; since around 20 years ago there has only been a very gradual decline. While there has been a long-term decline, current figures are still higher than at many times in history (although the rise in the total workforce size means that comparisons focusing on density – not raw figures – are admittedly less favourable).  

A critical problem for unions today is the poor level of private sector union density (only 1 in 6 private sector workers are in a union, compared with over half of public sector workers). Many private sector workplaces simply don’t have any union members at all, with small workplaces particularly hard to crack. It is also notable that membership among low-paid workers is low, as it is among young workers.

The great leaps forward in unionisation have historically been through workers’ struggle. The New Unionism (roughly 1888-90) was one such period, but the main growth was between 1910 and the early 1920s. This was a time of successive waves of struggle: the Great Unrest before World War One, Red Clydeside and other wartime shop stewards movements, and the semi-revolutionary year of 1919. The 1926 General Strike tends to be cited as a historical reference point in press reports of industrial action, but it’s worth recalling that it came some time after the major breakthroughs (and most of the key struggles) for trade unions during and after the First World War. 

Growth in union membership – linked to struggle – has not simply been a matter of numerical increase. Whole sectors that were previously non-unionised have become unionised. This was true in the New Unionism, Great Unrest and the upturn of 1969-74 when teachers, for example, were prominent in union struggles for the first time (alongside many other white collar workers).

Low level of strikes

The 1980s had a fair amount of strike action, but much of it was defeated. These defeats were accompanied by a concerted offensive, by government and employers, against trade unions, including a raft of anti-union laws. Defeats and anti-union legislation, combined with unemployment, demoralised and disciplined large sections of the movement. Since the mid-1990s there has been a much lower level of strike action, but (partly due to their being little struggle in the first place) there have been no devastating defeats even remotely comparable to the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

It is true that, while there has been little industrial action, unions have often won concessions simply by threatening strike action. It is also true that strike ballots have often returned thumping majorities for action. These are positive elements in the picture, but they have to be balanced with recognition that strike action isn’t just about winning concessions: it is about workers discovering, through collective action, their own strength. The near-absence of that experience is a serious weakness. 

It needs to be stressed that strike figures over the last 20 years have been low by any historical standards. Strike action has been replaced by a raft of other measures, which generally don’t involve self-activity collectively by workers, from industrial tribunals to union-led lobbying campaigns.

2010 saw the lowest total of strike days since records began in the 1930s (official figures are unreliable, but they are consistently unreliable so comparisons over time are largely accurate). In 2011, the total was higher but an astonishing 90% of the total ‘strike days lost’ was a result of just 2 days of mass public sector strike action (30 June and 30 November). 2012 is sadly shaping up to be another historic low like two years ago.

This means that the pattern of industrial action is one of very little strike action – just isolated, small-scale struggles – punctuated by the occasional mass one-day public sector strike (also think back to spring 2008, when teachers struck for the day). This single fact is also a sobering reality check for anyone who claims those strikes marked the beginnings of a generalised upturn in industrial struggle. Not yet they aren’t. Nearly 1.4 million strike days in 2011 doesn’t begin to compare to the 24 million in 1972.

In general, one-day strikes (not indefinite or prolonged action) are the norm. A standard position for some socialists to adopt is still to call for turning one-day strikes into an indefinite strike – the ‘stay out’ part of the slogan ‘all out, stay out’ alludes to this. There are circumstances where this is realistic, but it is rarely a credible or attractive position to adopt. It probably makes most sense only when the dispute is over widespread job losses, so there’s a sense of utter desperation that can only be addressed by indefinite action (think of the Miners’ Strike, but there are smaller scale examples too like the Liverpool dockers in the late 1990s).

What about the less familiar tactic of workplace occupations? In 2009 there was a hope that much-trumpeted occupations at Visteon (a car manufacturing plant in Enfield, a subsidiary of Ford) and Vestas (a wind turbine blades factory on Isle of Wight) might signpost a renaissance of workplace occupations, something largely unknown since the first half of the 1970s. It didn’t happen. Visteon’s circumstances were somewhat exceptional, while Vestas was very small scale. Even the wave of student occupations in late 2010 didn’t trigger any kind of similar workplace action.

Characteristics of today’s union activism

The number of trade union reps has declined substantially – an estimated 100,000 reps compared to 300,000 thirty years ago. The nature of a typical union rep’s work has changed, with great emphasis on individual case work. This reflects a shift towards unions often ‘representing’ individual members, for example through industrial tribunals – which are in fact a largely successful anti-union measure because they transfer focus from collective to individual action, from strikes to legal procedures.

There is frequently a tendency for the union to be seen as something from outside the workplace: ‘we should get the union in’ is a phrase I’ve heard numerous times in teaching. ‘The union’ is often seen as layer of professionals - paid union officials with expertise – rather than a collective means of resistance. It is the ‘service model’ of trade unionism.  

There has, in general, been a ‘professionalisation’ of the unions. This is linked to a growing need for professional, e.g. legal, expertise, so that union representatives become, in a sense, more specialised, thus more separate from ordinary members. This also strengthens the hand of full-time officials in relation to lay reps, who will often lack that necessary expertise. The rise of this model is of course linked to the decline in industrial action and the effects of anti-union legislation.

Almost everything is done through official structures. It’s not just the decline in numbers of lay reps, though that is significant. The kind of independent rank and file action known in the 1950s, 60s and 70s – during the long post-war boom of full employment and slowly rising living standards - is almost unheard of now.

Even the victorious sparks – in many ways rightly lauded as an example of militancy – mostly didn’t ‘down tools’ and walk out in their recent dispute. Most of the electricians’ action was at the level of organising militant protests, but without taking unofficial strike action. They raised the stakes when Unite officially balloted for industrial action and protests stepped up to (the threat of) national strike action.  

In the last decade there have been some examples of wildcat action – postal workers in the CWU, most notably, several years ago – but it hasn’t become a pattern. In the post-war period such action was underpinned by the job security that came with full employment, plus the long boom delivering scope for concessions. It has been very different since the neo-liberal offensive began in the late 1970s.

Politics and the union bureaucracy

A contradictory element in all this is the ascendancy of more left-ish union leaders, dubbed the ‘awkward squad’ a decade ago, in unions like PCS, RMT and FBU. This reflected the wider political mood in the working class and the clear failure of many of the old guard of right-wing leaders.

It has made a tangible difference having Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka and others leading unions, but a change in leadership has generally not been enough to turn things around. They have not, after all, risen on the back of high levels of struggle and they don’t necessarily have a strong base among ordinary members to counteract the pressure of bureaucratisation.

Some, but not all, are also weakened by their ties to the Labour Party, which almost always operates as a pull to the right. Those, like Serwotka and Crow, who aren’t linked to Labour have experimented with alternative modes of engaging in politics, but with very mixed and inconclusive results. Respect and the Scottish Socialist Party flourished for a while in the mid-noughties, but the current prospects for left-of-Labour electoral alternatives are currently poor (I don’t believe George Galloway’s Bradford West victory this year, for all its significance, alters this).

The ‘broad left’ is a key phenomenon in modern trade unions. These groupings of officials and activists, seeking positions at national and regional levels, vary greatly from union to union – in terms of how ‘left’ they are, how influential they are, and the extent to which they are merely electoral machines. While welcome, and preferable to the Right being the dominant presence inside a union, there are profound limits to them. They are no substitute for a strong independent rank and file organisation.

The union-Labour link is more complex than it once was. Labour’s shift to the right, especially from the mid-90s onwards, created considerable tensions between trade unions and the Labour Party. In many ways, however, the link is still an important element in the labour movement. The lack of a credible electoral alternative on the left – combined with the depth of Labourism’s roots in the working class - ensures that, though shaken and eroded, the Labour-union relationship survives. There are many moderates in the upper echelons of the big Labour-affiliated unions (Unison, GMB, Unite) essentially hanging on for 2015, and the expected election of a Labour government, blunting resistance to cuts and privatisation in the here and now.

One other political element is worth commenting on. A side-effect of the long-term union decline is that many of today’s radicals and anti-capitalists don’t automatically grasp the significance of unions or of strike action. This is very different to the early 1970s, for example, when it was self-evident to most youthful anti-capitalists that the unions were a vital player in confronting the system. Of course it was different in a country like the US where levels of industrial struggle were far lower – radical currents in American politics often regarded trade unions with indifference. Today, in this country, the connection between anti-capitalists and trade unions is not automatic, but can be fruitful when persevered with.

The way forward

Trade unions are sometimes characterised, by their opponents, as a relic of a bygone age. That is wrong. They are as necessary as ever – more necessary considering the current onslaught on working class conditions – and have held up despite all the problems.

The unions dominate the anti-cuts movement and mobilise on a scale no other kind of organisation can dream about. That was proven on three landmark dates last year: 26 March, 30 June and 30 November. There are examples of how unions can grow through a willingness to take action – the RMT, for example, is actually bigger than a decade ago – and the 20 October demonstration will no doubt remind us of the union movement’s enormous capacity.

But those on the left who have trumpeted a great revival of union militancy have also got it wrong. Those who drew over-excited conclusions from the great 30 November 2011 day of action under-estimated the continuing strength of union leaders, their ability to buckle and the extent to which that drags the whole movement along behind them. The story since last December has been one of a long-drawn-out series of compromises and vacillations, sometimes partially reversed by concerted grassroots pressure but overall moving in the wrong direction.

But it’s more than that: some socialists have also failed to grasp the impact of several long-term developments, most of which have been regressive from a left-wing perspective: decline in membership density, the collapse of union organisation in large chunks of the private sector, the historically low levels of strike action, ‘professionalisation’ of union work, and a sharp decline in the number of lay union reps.

These problems need to be faced honestly. At the same time we should be aware that things can change and move in our direction again. There is no reason to believe that things are so bad that re-building is impossible. There is no single model for how this will happen – either from history or by generalising from specific cases in our recent experience. History can be no more than a rough guide because the economy and the working class today have been so profoundly re-shaped.

A few things are, I would suggest, likely to be part of any revival. Firstly, street protests – over issues such as war in Iraq, climate change, the threat of the far right, tuition fees, and most recently cuts - have long been a feature of this country’s protest culture at a time when strike levels have been low. Even when there has been co-ordinated strike action, the message has been greatly amplified by street demonstrations up and down the country, serving as a rallying point for unions to combine together on 30 June and again on 30 November 2011.

It is reasonable to assume that demonstrations like that on 20 October will continue to play a crucial role, but they need to be combined with action in the workplaces. Such demonstrations are powerful mechanisms for unity and active co-operation. They need to be used as a basis for concerted action, including strikes, not treated as glorious one-offs.

Secondly, politics matters. Not necessarily party politics or electoral politics, but a lot of the most meaningful union initiatives in recent years have been, in some sense, political not purely ‘bread and butter’ economic issues. Politics – from anti-racism to articulating alternatives to austerity, from support for the anti-war movement to international solidarity work – will be central to any growth in the relevance and impact of unions.

For example, teaching unions can only seriously advance if they connect specific pay and conditions issues with a broader front of opposition to Michael Gove’s ideological attack on education. The current scandal over GCSE English grades is merely the latest of many examples of a political and ideological issue that has angered teachers. Pensions and pay matter, but so do politics in an educational and broader sense.

Thirdly, unions have to grow by organising those traditionally considered ‘unorganisable’, reaching into those sectors dominated by precarious, part-time or low-paid working. A major lesson of the union movement’s history, especially at its peaks, is that it can be done – and needs to be done. A great local example, where I live in Tyneside, is the RMT’s rapid recruitment of most of the cleaners on Tyne and Wear Metro, who have recently taken strike action for a living wage and workers’ rights.

Fourthly, while the core work of unions will always be issues of direct concern to members – and nothing can substitute for recruiting and organising new members – alliances with campaigns, community groups etc are increasingly important. There is always the danger of this being pursued as an alternative to collective action or a focus on the workplaces. Any such tendency should be rejected and criticised.

Nonetheless, there is some hope in things like Unite’s community membership scheme and the efforts of some unions to forge links with anti-cuts campaigns like UK Uncut and Coalition of Resistance. Trades councils are sometimes a mechanism for such co-operation, though these vary enormously across the country, and there are promising examples like union involvement in the Hardest Hit coalition which co-ordinates disabled people opposing cuts.

Finally, there is the question of grassroots organisation. There is little in the way of independent rank and file organisation in today’s union movement. Such organisation cannot be built overnight, and in some ways the conditions are not favourable for doing so. It is therefore misguided for some socialists to make the building of rank and file organisation central to their current perspective, regardless of whether it is feasible or not.

However, it certainly is necessary to strengthen an independent pole of attraction from the powerful union bureaucracy. This requires absorbing the lessons suggested above: taking recruitment seriously, being political, making links across the unions and beyond, and using protests as a basis for further action. With the government determined to push through attacks on an unprecedented scale, the challenges for trade unions have never been greater or more urgent.



  1. An interesting, balanced analysis, however I feel that the suggested ways forward don't go far enough. The reason they don't imo is because the analysis underestimates the strength of the conservative and anti-democratic effects of trade union bureaucratisation and the LP link which, at best, would render the proposed measures ineffectual.

    I can see only two possible scenarios for a revival of trade unions progressive political role in the UK: first, being dragged leftwards by mass political protest from non-trade union quarters if that were to happen (a big 'if' given that the dominant mood of the left and disaffected public seems to have become one of grim resignation); and second, through the creation of an independent (i.e. non-affiliated) trade union movement by some large and smaller trade unions as a highly political act, followed by vigorous recruitment (poaching even) in certain key sectors, neglected private sector industries, and also amongst the unemployed.

    Neither of these scenarios seems likely so we seem doomed to at best elect another Labour government in a few years which will continue neo-liberal mark II policies with a slightly more human-looking facade. The UK has become a bastion of capitalist conservatism and reaction so don't hold your breath for a mass left wing protest movement emerging here until the rest of Europe is in flames.

  2. Thanks for the comment Neil. You may well be right about those suggestions not going far enough. I have focused on things that seem feasible in the current period, but perhaps a more dramatic shift is necessary.

    In the article as a whole, though, I HAVE laid a lot of emphasis on both the problems of bureaucratisation and the links with Labour. I'm not sure I agree, though, that those problems - however deep - make the proposed ways forward ineffectual. They are, though, undoubtedly very tough obstacles.

    What underpins that is the fact that workers are actually very weak in individual workplaces. Wildcat strikes by specific, localised groups of workers are far rarer than in the 70s. Most strike action is not only 'official' but at national level. Everything is done through the union machine. The big national one-day public sector strike dominates the picture.

    This all means that the national union bureaucracy is powerful. Sometimes this leads to big, co-ordinated action, but it also leads to sell-outs and demoralisation. Historically, rank and file movements have depended on the capacity of workers, at grassroots level, to walk out and perhaps win swift victories by doing so. But how often does that happen now? So there isn't, unfortunately, the basis in action for what we traditionally mean by 'rank and file movements'.

    Out of your two hypotheses, I think the first (a mass movement pressuring the unions) is more viable than the second. It may just happen. However, the pattern so far in fighting cuts is that unions have dominated things. The student revolts in late 2010 were a partial exception, but that was short-lived.

    Finally, I'm not sure the differences between here and the rest of Europe are as big as you suggest. Compared with Greece, yes we are very different at present. Compared with many other countries, we're in a similar place. I certainly think there's potential for explosive struggle, but it may not materialise. In my post I've deliberately avoided much prediction - the useful thing is to assess existing patterns a formulate a way forward on that basis.

  3. Thanks for your well considered reply Alex. I understand your suggestions were derived from a focus on the current situation, but this is why in my opinion they didn't go far enough. Impossible to theoretically demonstrate which of us is correct, but I think that your own acknowledgement of the weakness of local organisation (and I would add culture) and dominance of the professional bureaucracy (strongly reinforced by the servicing model) would seem to me to render the problem of rank and file revival more than 'mere' "tough obstacles".

    I find it sad that you believe my first hypothesis is more likely than the latter, and I accept with your inside knowledge that you are probably right, because it demonstrates how dire things really are. As regards the former I think the problem is the residual belief of the majority of ordinary people that the trade union movement is and should be the popular vanguard of mass social democratic protest, when it is no longer capable and willing to perform said role. All in all I'm not sure from what you write why you believe there definitely is potential for explosive struggle? I don't see it.

    Interestingly I've just been reading an article by a highly respected trade union organiser in South Africa (from where I originally hail)speculating that the Marikana incident and wider industrial stirrings may herald the birth of a new independent trade union movement and phase of working class struggle there. It might be interesting to hear your view as to why an independent, breakaway trade union movement in the UK is unlikely, or an analysis of the factors that might make it feasible. I'm afraid that politically that's the kind of 'dramatic shift' we need to see happen here.

    1. I'd say there's 3 reasons why the potential is there for explosive struggle (which doesn't mean it will definitely happen - and without predicting its timing or form). First, it's happened before in this country - there have been sharp, dramatic changes, like the examples I cite above (1889, 1911, 1919, 1972). Second, it's happened elsewhere in response to the current crisis - above all in Greece, but several other European countries provide examples too (plus we could go further afield, e.g. to student struggles in Chile and Canada). Third, the objective conditions are serious - there's a major, sustained assault on living standards, public services and welfare, which does NOT automatically generate resistance but it does mean there's considerable potential for 'kicking off'.

      Why are breakaway unions unlikely? Roughly speaking for 2 reasons: they take a huge amount of effort to develop, and the crisis of the existing unions isn't so deep that it is perceived as necessary. This latter point may be surprising, but actually most unions - though they have declining membership - have certainly not collapsed, there's still a layer of reps and officials (even if smaller than before) and most of these unions at least do a modest amount to represent and defend members.

      There's also a recognition that unions are stronger if people are together, rather than split into different unions despite working in the same sector. The trend is actually towards merger, e.g. Unite. In teaching, the split between a few different unions is a different weakness.

  4. Regarding the issue of a breakaway independent union movement I'm not sure I agree with your reasons - if one or two of the largest unions were to lead the breakaway they could start a new TUC, confederation or whatever from a pretty strong organisational and financial position.
    Re the current state of existing unions - I think it's a matter of perception how deep their crisis is - imo they're like the coyote that's run off the edge of the cliff but still not realised it. Speaking with some direct experience on the matter I think they are so hollowed out that as 'organising' rank and file movements they're generally cardboard organisations based on a historical memory and the professional 'servicing' bureaucracies are the substance (such as it is). The long-standing tendency to merger into super-unions has correctly in my view been seen by some as a symptom and response to weakness and decline which fails to address the real problems and thus papers over the cracks. I guess however that enough people have not realised, or believe yet, that trying to revive the existing unions and the Labour Party is like flogging a dead horse. Things will have to get pretty desperate I think before people realise this.