Trade Unions in Britain Today

THIS WEEK we report on a number of small industrial disputes involving a variety of workers ranging from museum warders, cleaners and telecommunication workers. These struggles give us pause to reflect on the state of trade unionism in the year which marks 150 years since the inaugural meeting of the Trades Union Congress at the Mechanics’ Institute in Manchester held between the 2nd and 6th June 1868. At present the TUC claims to represent 5.5 million workers in 49 trade unions. After a century and a half this is not a very impressive achievement in a country with a workforce of 32.34 million. At its peak in 1979 the TUC had more than double number of members with 13.2 million members.

fifty years ago, the TUC’s centenary was marked by a Royal Mail commemorative stamp. Unsurprisingly, under a Tory government none is planned for 2018.

The FDA, which represents senior civil servants, now has twenty times the membership of the National Union of Mineworkers. Blaming the late Lady Thatcher, who resigned the premiership nearly thirty years ago, for her anti-trade union laws, and wallowing in nostalgia for the days when the miners unions represented nearly half a million workers will not do.

The NUM is as dead as the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries so we must look to the future. Call centre workers, supermarket shelf stackers, and their managers, are all part of the working class and need organising.

While the Civil Service no longer sacks women for getting married as it did not so long ago, pregnancy can often see a women’s dismissal despite what the law says. Even if workers have rights on paper, they stay there unless there is a union to enforce them. As we can see on other pages even basic recognition is a struggle, many recent battles are in defence of rights won decades ago. Battles for higher pay, the work/life balance, rights to breaks, would be only too familiar to the pioneers of 1868.

Turnouts in union elections, at national and local level are abysmal, a point that does not go unnoticed by employers who only listen to unions when workers act. Delegates to local trade union councils are all too often members of their local pensioners’ associations. There are also many members who know they are in “the union” but not exactly sure which, rather than active -- so limited is their interest. Whatever their faults, and they are many, Britain’s trade unions have much to be proud of. They have done much to raise the living standards of the working class. Some people are still angry about the General Council’s surrender when the 1926 General Strike was holding solid. Despite its decline the TUC still represents more than double the number of workers than their American equivalent, which now speaks for just eleven per cent of the workforce. Its other strength is that unlike continental union which cover only unions of particular political hues, it gives a single united voice to most unionised workers. Although this means it often moves at the speed of the slowest, this unity should not be undervalued.

Recently a number of small independent unions have emerged including the Independent Workers of Great Britain and the revived Industrial Workers of the World. These have arisen when low paid, often migrant workers feel they have been failed by larger unions. Both the IWW and IWGB have had some success, but they seem to depend on a very few energetic individuals and how they could withstand serious setbacks has yet to be tested. Whether in response to the upstarts or not established unions have also been actively organising among hitherto unorganised workers as the recent strikes of workers in restaurant chains demonstrates.

Instead of seeking to build new unions on the back of discontent with the old, existing members need to become more active and put themselves forward for office.

Industrial unionism, that is one union for each industry which would unite all workers regardless of job or grade, should be our ultimate aim. Were all railway workers in one union rather than drivers in either Aslef or RMT, other drivers and platform staff in RMT, and clerical staff in TSSA they, and the working class generally, all would be in a much stronger position.