British Trade Unionism: A Primer

by Gregor Gall

We interviewed one of the country's leading commentators on trade unionism in order to provide a historical and political introduction to the labour movement in the UK.

First published: 30 November, 2011 | Category: History, Labour movement

Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire and is one of the leading commentators on trade unionism in the UK. He is on the editorial board of Scottish Left Review and is the author, most recently, of Tommy Sheridan: From Hero to Zero?: A Political Biography, which will be published shortly.

As the biggest strike in the UK for a generation takes place, this interview intends to provide a historical and political introduction to the British trade union movement.

What is the origin of the trade union movement in the UK?

There are three probably obvious origins. One is trade unions like those of the very first skilled workers such as printers. The second is friendly societies which were mutual insurance benevolent societies (of which the cooperative societies today are the obvious descendents). The other is guilds where workers banded together to protect and regulate their occupational or professional interests and supplied labour to employers that wanted it. Prior to the 1880s, trade unionism was really the prerogative of skilled workers. The London Matchgirls strike of 1888 was the beginning of what was termed 'new unionism' as per the first organising into unions of unskilled and semi-skilled workers. This action led to what is now the GMB union. It is important to emphasis that most of the unions of this period were trade unions - not general unions for many types of workers but specific unions for each trade. Many at the time were also regional unions. It's not until the 1920s that we can really start talking about national (ie Britain wide) unions. Today, Unison for the public sector and Unite for the private sector (although both have members outside of this) are the epitome of general unionism for the public and private sectors. One of the ironies of history about the origins of trade unionism in Britain is that where workers controlled the labour supply in many of the skilled trade, the promotion of collective bargaining was done by employers because it allowed them some control over the organisation of work - previously this had been unilaterally decided by the workers themselves.

What is the high point of trade union membership, numerically speaking, in the UK? What have been the trends in terms of union density since then, both overall and in terms of private vs public sector workers and skilled vs unskilled workers?

Ironically, the highpoint was 1980 (and not 1979) when membership reached some 13m and 55% overall density. Prior to this union membership had grown in spurts and fits but the 1970s saw a long slow and sustained increase. Some of this was due to the spread of the closed shop but the most important locations of the growth were the public sector and white collar workers in industry and commerce. The latter were the result of government policy - to encourage unionisation as a limited measure of industrial democracy and to provide political stability - as well as employer policy (for similar reasons albeit as a way to maintain control by sharing it). But the spill-over of the union wage premium (the difference between unionised and non-unionised workplaces) in the private sector for manual workers being realised by other workers was also a factor. In other words, non-manual workers outside of the private sector and workers in general could see the benefit of being in a union in terms of its positive effective on their wage packets. Lastly, the development of shop stewards organisation and union organising in the public sector was also part of the jigsaw in explaining the growth.

Since those days, union membership in relative and absolute terms has fallen significantly. By 1989, membership had fallen to 9m (or 34% density and which exacerbated by the growing size of the labour force). Around 1990, public sector density was 65% while it was 25% in the private sector. By 2010, these figures are 56% and 14% respectively. The figure for the private sector hides a huge disparity between the almost non-existence of union membership in the hotel, restaurant and leisure sectors and in excess of 50% in many of the form privatised industries. Today, professional workers are more unionised than skilled, semi or unskilled workers. The majority of union members - 4m - are in the public sector, with the remainder - 2.5m - in the private sector.

What is the significance of these disparities in union density?

The heartland of union membership is now very much the public sector (in common with most other developed economies). This has obvious strengths and weaknesses. But first and foremost, it has to be recognised that any strike in the public sector is essentially a political strike because any leverage over the employer is political rather than economic (as per a private sector strike which tries to inflict an economic loss upon the employer). This requires that unions operate accordingly and ally any industrial action with an explicit political campaign. In terms of the private sector, skilled workers outside of a few sectors are not the unionised members that we now remember them of old - the Fred Kite workers of the film I'm Alright Jack. But we also need to remember that manufacturing is still an important component of the economy in Britain even if only 11% of the workforce is employed in it (compared to 23% in 1979 and 16% in 1997). This means that potentially a smaller group of workers are in a significantly strategic position - as long as we also remember that workers in logistics and communications (the means of distribution and exchange compared to the means of production) are also equally significant in terms of their potential leverage.

What was the impact of Thatcherism on unions and union membership in this country and how has the anti-union legislation of the neo-liberalism period impacted on their ability to organise?

Thatcherism's greatest victory was to inculcate the belief amongst workers that there was no alternative but to compete in the race to the bottom by lowering wage costs and labour standards in order to preserve jobs. So the 'new realism' became that employers could not be beaten and cooperation was better than conflict. Each defeat in the 1980s reinforced this. This was the key psychological factor in explaining the dimunition in union power and membership. Structurally, the closure of many unionised workplaces in manufacturing and the opening of non-union workplaces in the private services sector reinforced this.

Following the experience of the early 1970s with the Pentonville dockers, Thatcher recognised that it was far better for their side to target unions as organisations (their finances, premises etc) than target individual union activists. This was astute as no union other than the NUM and NGA have ever attempted to ignore the new laws given the consequences. The impact of the law here has been to lead the unions to self-censor themselves by not taking certain courses of action and standing down others. Until, and unless, a significant number of unions openly defy the law, then each individual union will remain shackled by it.   

Were unions as politically powerful in the 1970s as is popularly imagined?

Yes, but this is significantly exaggerated. Union influence in the Labour Party was great but for a long time before the Parliamentary Labour Party and the leadership had shown itself willing to ignore the decisions of party conferences. If the unions were as powerful as was often said, both industrially and politically, we would have then been a far sight closer to a form of social democracy (where the state intervenes to regulate the processes and outcomes of the market) than we'd ever been. What is forgotten is that union power is invariably reactive - unions react to what employers and governments do rather than initiative in a pro-active more independent way what they are for.

There have been different ideas from thinkers on the left regarding the impact that unions have and can have on the political attitudes and consciousness of workers. Famous examples include Marx’s reference to trade unions as ‘schools of socialism and Lenin’s reference to the limits of ‘trade union consciousness’. Do unions have an intrinsic tendency to engender a mentality that is critical of capitalism and, indeed, of sympathy to socialism?

Both Marx and Lenin's dictums reflect their analyses of the upswings and downswings of union struggle, seeing in each the 'optimism' and 'pessimism' of what unions can be in different situations. A better starting point is to recognise the dual tension existing in unions. So, on the one hand, unions are a response to capitalism but, on the other, they are also shaped by it, especially as regards their chosen response. Accordingly, they are there to bargain for a better wage-effort bargain without necessarily seeking to abolish the wage-effort bargain. However, the very terms of exploitation embodied in the wage-effort bargain means that only abolition of the wage-effort bargain – capitalism – can get rid of the exploitation per se. In this sense, unions respond to the pressures for reform and revolution. In Anglo-Saxon countries, there is also a tendency for unions to be primarily economistic – concerned with the pounds and pence of the wage-effort bargain and leaving political matters to their political appointees: Labour or social democratic parties. This tendency reinforces a conservatism.

In most periods – i.e. when there are not rising levels of collective industrial struggle and collective oppositional consciousness – and given the above about unions being reactive organisations, unions and their members occupy the place of being conservative. This is both good and bad. Good in that what is termed progress is often reactionary, bad in that aspirations are limited to the existing situation. Moreover, the separation between members and union reinforces this because members on the whole are not the activists who shape the unions. So unions are quite often conservative in practice even if they remain broadly social democratic in political outlook.  

Left critics of unions often allege a range of problems with union bureaucracies (their leadership and paid staff) – that they are hierarchical, rigid and ultimately hostile to grassroots campaigning by workers. What is your view of the issues posed by the divide between rank and file workers and the leadership/bureaucracy?

There clearly is a divide on this axis in terms of the proximity of both to the wage-effort bargain and their respective levels of pay and conditions but we should not be as naive to think it is always a bad thing. In the recent period, it is the officers and unions who have been more oppositional than most ordinary union members and who have encouraged opposition and resistance amongst members. Take the case of the Mark Serwotkas and Bob Crows of this world. This is because the officers do not stand to lose their jobs or be victimised unlike rank and file members, given that it is they who must carry out the opposition at the workplace. It is only in exceptional circumstances that we can talk about a substantial number of members being more militant or to the left of the union leadership. None of this means to say that the fight by union activists and members more generally to dictate the direction and actions of their unions is not an important one in terms of not just democracy and accountability but also collective strength. That said, at the moment the key division in the unions is not between members and leaders but the right and left over aims, strategy and tactics. You can see this in the pension dispute. A bigger and more grounded left in the unions would be the most welcome development.

There is an on-going debate about whether or not trade unions should preserve their link with the Labour Party. What are the strongest arguments either side of this debate and what is your view on the matter?

For better or worse, the Labour Party matters in British politics and will continue to matter. The unions within it are the last organised vestige of social democracy. Labour should not be ignored or discounted just because it is not as we wish it to be. Indeed, to the extent that Labour remains different, even though it has been colonised by neo-liberalism, it is because of the social weight of the unions. But the question of 'in' or ‘out' of Labour for the unions is a Catch-22 situation. No matter how enfeebled or rightwing Labour is, it will seem to many like the only show in town so long as the radical left is marginalised and divided. When the radical left is so pathetic, it at least seems to make sense to remain in the same tent as that occupied by the relatively more politicised workers. Those on the left of the Labour Party do not need to be convinced so much of the 'why' but the 'how'. And here the radical left continues to offer no credible alternative in terms of organisational forms. It should have been making hay in the present crisis of neo-liberalism. The SSP in Scotland was the one temporary exception to this - but as it is said every rule has its exception and every exception has its rule. In the current context then the unions need to 'fart and chew gum' at the same time by putting pressure on Labour - affiliates and non-affiliates alike - and by operating independently of it as their own political actors.  

We are witnessing the biggest one day strike in the UK for generations. Does this suggest an upsurge of militancy in the public sector unions? And how important is the current battle between the unions and the government?

While the arrival of N30 is very much to be welcomed, and while it is the result in some ways of pressure from below, it is nonetheless a mass bureaucratic strike when you look at who has led it, its dynamics and limits and how it has come about in terms of the processes of negotiations and balloting. The balloting requirements have centralised power in unions in the hands of the national leadership. For these reasons as well as that we are only talking about a single day of action so far, it's wrong to conclude this is proof of a new found militancy. The key issue will be whether after N30 there is more action and that which effective and what its nature is. If the leadership gets its way, it will be a case of selective rolling action called the smart strike (see ). This will indicate the definite limits to any sense of militancy.

Nonetheless, the current battle is a vital one for both unions and government because so much rests of it and because both have upped the ante in recent weeks. But the possibility of a compromise is always there - if a deal can be done to satisfy Unison but not the PCS and to assure the government that it makes some of its savings while preserving its political credibility.  

Are militant unions still key to the prospects of any successful left strategy? If so, should the left be pressuring them to make strategic and/or structural changes in order to fulfil this role? You have written about the need for public sector unions to make alliances with the users of public services; is this line of thinking reflected in the decision taken by Unite (a private sector union) to move beyond the workplace with their community membership scheme?

Yes, because when all is said and done, not only can workers in the workplaces exercise influence over the means of production, distribution and exchange - the basis of the economy - but because they are still mass organisations which can deliver hundreds of thousands on to the streets like on March 26 2011. And yes the left needs to be active inside and outside the unions to help them become more strategic and pro-active actors. Some of this can be detected in Unite's actions but there needs to be more of this in Unite and much more elsewhere. Union organisation outside the workplace is vital but it cannot be a substitute for strength inside the workplace. It is necessary but not sufficient. We need to work towards a situation where unions in Britain can be like their counterparts in southern Europe which can mobilise mass numbers of workers and citizens in and outside workplaces. That would be a significant qualitative and quantitative advance in Britain in terms of levers of power and strategic capability.

Finally, I'd add that in regard of the current pension dispute that the Coalition government has played a very inept game here so far given the Ridley Plan which Thatcher used. Essentially, don't take on all the unions at the same time as Heath did in the early 1970s. Instead, divide and rule and take on one at a time. In the early summer, it looked like it was possible it might succeed in peeling off a fair chunk of Unison members in local government (the LGPS) because it has a different funding stream and a slightly different and marginally better deal could be done there (recall some of Unison leader Dave Prentis’ comments). However, that opportunity was squandered as the government managed not to ‘divide and rule’ but unify its opposition into a fairly solid group of now nearly 30 unions is a testament to its lack of nous. The only significant union not to strike on N30 is the FBU because it has been offered more meaningful talks which need to be exhausted in order to progress to a ballot and ‘yes’ vote should that be necessary. There seem to be no signs that the government has got any intention of meting out selective treatment. Time will tell whether the strength of this week compels then to go back to this oak aged tactic. If I was them, I would certainly think of doing so as different unions have shown different degrees of willingness to continue or up the ante after N30.

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