Chris Bambery assesses the the strength of the trade unions and the working class movement in Britain today.

In the last year the two souls of Britain’s trade union movement have been on display. On 26 March 2011 a demonstration called by the Trade Union Congress brought some 600,000 people onto the streets of London. It was a reminder that unions still organise 6.5 million workers, the largest organisation in these lands, and that they can pull with them a broader workers movement – community campaigns, students, the disabled and pensioners amongst them.

The two one day public sector strikes over pensions, on 30 June and 30 November showed the potential of the unions to form a wider anti-austerity bloc in Britain. The Occupy movement rallied with enthusiasm behind the second strike.

But what followed after N30 displayed the second soul of the union movement. A return to talks from a position of relative weakness meant a poor deal from the government and the majority of unions, including the biggest – Unite, pulled the plug on further action. Unions like the PCS, NUT and UCU were left to fight alone and subsequently retreated. It was an abject lesson in the role of trade union officials. Their task is to negotiate with the employers and the state. Their material position is far removed from those they represent. For the Union bigwigs strikes might be a useful way to nudge along negotiations but most union full-timers dislike the prospect of a rank and file resurgence that can push them aside.

It might be added that some of these bureaucrats were almost gleeful in the knowledge that by calling off pension action they would leave the PCS general secretary, Mark Serwotka, cruelly exposed. He is too left wing and too independent for their liking.
The strikes were popular. Tory attempts to cast the unions as villains ‘holding the country to ransom’ fell flat, and young people more than liked the whiff of industrial action – they rallied to it in their thousands.

In one sense what’s been written so far could have been written at any point in the last century. What would usually follow would be one of a number of arguments. “We have to capture the union machine for the left.” Let’s leave aside that those militants who get elected are the ones usually captured, and point out that the current list of union general secretaries is much more left wing than in the 1970s when striking was in fashion.
“We need to build a powerful rank and file movement capable of taking action independent of the bureaucracy.” As a strategic goal it retains its necessity but in the immediate weeks and months it offers little escape from the debacle of the pension’s dispute.

Consider the difference between N30 and the 1926 General Strike. Then the pressure was built from the rank and file, from the shop floor and foisted on a reluctant union leadership. Indeed an exasperated A.J Cook had to blockade the Trade Union chiefs into a room to save the strike from a last minute wobble from the union tops. N30 was a gift to an almost non-existent rank and file – and those that giveth so easily taketh away.
The traditional comfort zone on the British far left; the mix of simple trade union or economic practice with abstract appeals for socialism is not only redundant – it painted a left gloss on what was for the most a bureaucratic manoeuvre.

The percentage of workers in a union has been falling now for more than three decades – as last years TUC General Council report stated:

“Whilst union membership in the public sector has increased by almost 350,000 since 1995, density [the overall percentage of employers in a union in a workplace] declined by five per cent over the same period. This suggests that during a period of significant employment growth in the sector the capacity of unions to keep pace with this and maintain and increase density in the sector was limited. The government cuts programme and a likely increase in the use of outsourcing and privatisation will place additional pressures on public sector membership and density moving forward…

“…The continued difficulties facing union recruitment in the private sector have resulted in union density dropping to less than 15 per cent in significant parts of the sector such as construction, accommodation and food service (hospitality), wholesale and retail, information and communication. In manufacturing, a sector traditionally regarded as a union stronghold, fewer than one in five workers are now union members.”

There has also been a profound change in the make up of the unions:

“Union members are now less likely to be male (54% in 1999, 46% in 2009); women first outnumbered men in 2005. They are less likely to be manual workers (38% in 1999, 32% in 2009) and less likely to work in the private sector (48% in 1999, 39% in 2009). They are more likely to be aged 50 or over (26% in 1999, 34% in 2009) and more likely to be highly educated (21% had a degree in 1999, rising to 34% in 2009). Between 1999 and 2009, the stock of union members has thus become more feminised; it has become older; and it has become more educated. It has also become increasingly dominated by workers in non-manual jobs and those working in the public sector.”

As Bryson and Firth note in Trade Union Membership and Influence 1999-2009, the numbers of young workers who are unionised is not good new: “In 1989 29.7% of union members were under 30. Twenty years later it had fallen to 14.3%.”

The authors note:

“…the percentage of all employees who have never been a union member doubled between the mid-1980s and the late 1990s, but it has continued to rise in the past decade. By 2006-8, half of all employees were ‘never members.’”

The fall is not just in overall union membership:
“The number of employees covered by collective bargaining agreements, where unions and employers agree pay and conditions at national level, has fallen in the private sector from 23.1% in 1999 to 17.6% in 2009. In the public sector 71.7% were covered by such agreements in 1999 falling to 67.4% ten years later””

As Adrian Cousins has attested in his landmark assessment – The Crisis of the British Regime – the percentage of private sector workers in a union is now just 14 percent and there is a lack of any union presence:

“Seventy-seven percent of all private sector workplaces have not a single union member present, but this is true of only 7% of those in the public sector. Moreover only 8% of private sector workplaces have more than half their workers in a union, but 62% of public sector workplaces have half.”

Back in 2004 shop stewards and union reps were present in just 13% of workplaces employing 10 or more people, as Ralph Darlington put it in ‘Capital and Class’ in 2010:

“The majority of union reps work full time, are over 40 years of age (the average age is 46) and male (56%). Although there has been a sharp increase in the number of female reps (from 38% in 1998 to 44% in 2004), there is an under-representation of black and ethnic minorities (just four percent are non white).”

The role of union reps has changed too:

“The severe weakening of workplace union organization today compared with the past has been reflected in the way that many stewards/reps, whether full time or otherwise, spend less time than previously on collective bargaining issues such as wages and conditions and more time on representing individual members in relation to welfare work, grievances and disciplinary cases”

Adrian Cousins develops this point:

“The position of shop stewards, and their role in the workplace today is now fundamentally different from that of the stewards of the late sixties and early seventies… as the number of collective disputes has declined there has been an inverse growth in the number of individual disputes in the form of ACAS cases or Employment Tribunals… the role of the workplace union rep increasingly consists of individual casework, not of organising collective action. This produces a workload that is dominated by the regulation of workplace relations rather than organising active resistance.”

These are not new problems as we can gather from the results of over 100 interviews carried out between 1998 and 2000 among members of three unions in the South West of England – MSF (a white collar engineering union now in Unite, the GMB and the AEEU engineering union (now also in Unite): 72% of workplace reps who responded had been in their job for seven years or more, just 2% were aged between 21-25 years with 70% more than 40 years old and 81% were male. The authors of the report wrote that, “in many workplaces recruitment activity is patchy or non-existent as a distinct focus of everyday union activity.”

The same Journal of Industrial Relations found that the union reps were complaining about the pressure of work, that the breakdown of the workforce into team working was challenging existing union organization and that ‘individualistic’ arguments which judged unions on how best they could service individuals had impacted on the shopfloor. The number of workplace reps is now around 100,000, down from over 300,000 in 1980.
At the same time the structure of the British working class is changing – Cousins again:

“The TUC estimates that there are around two million ‘precarious’ or as it calls them ‘vulnerable workers’ in Britain, 25% of them in workplaces with a union presence. A recent EU study suggested that the proportion of workers in precarious employment, or whose employment contains aspects of precarious work, could be larger than one third of the UK workforce, some ten million workers.”

The Hull Daily Mail reports on 21 March, “Yorkshire and the Humber has an army of 610,000 part-timers – equal to 26.2 per cent of all employees.” Overall the article points out, “A total of 7,222,500 of the workers aged 16 to 64 resident in Great Britain are employed in part-time jobs – more than a quarter of the workers.” Two million at least have been forced into part time work during this recession. They will have lost a series of rights that full-time staff possess. On top of this, 56 percent of students work: most part-time and with two thirds working in the retail and hospitality sectors. Shop, bar and restaurant work is low paid and unions are largely absent.

This is not to argue that there exists a separate ‘precariat.’ These workers are part of the working class but it is intolerable that even where full time workers are unionized part-time or agency workers are not organized. It allows management to use the increase in precarious work to drive down conditions for those in full-time jobs.

Many can be won to supporting action, as with the case of supply teachers taking part in J30 and N30. But the lack of strike action hampers this development. The figures for strike action last year show the support for J30 and N30 in the public sector but they cannot conceal the underlying trend which is a historically low level of strikes.

For nearly three decades we’ve been waiting for a strike or combination of strikes to achieve a breakthrough, inspiring others to follow their lead. We should always hope but we cannot depend on this to carry us forward.

What does offer hope is that austerity is unpopular, people feel a growing sense of injustice that the 99% are paying for this crisis and their actual experience of work is bitter – with British workers working more unpaid overtime, suffering pay freezes and pay cuts and management bullying a daily reality.

There are a growing number of people who’ve taken part in protests over the last 12 years and in the social movements of our time. In total they represent a force in the same league as the trade unions, but they are not as concentrated or organised.

But it does mean that in every workplace there is someone who has protested, signed a petition or joined a boycott. They will often be young. They are angry over having to pay the price for this crisis and over Britain’s addiction to war.

The overall task of the day is to build a mass movement against austerity. This is also the key to rebuilding workplace and trade union organisation, particularly if we can maximise trade union involvement in such a movement. We can triangulate a political movement across workplaces, campuses, communities and more – cross fertilizing the best traditions and experiences of all venues of resistance.

Marx and Engels stood out on the Left of their day in being pro-trade unions because they identified them as the basic organisation of the working class. But trade unions have to organise the broadest number of workers and thus involve those who want to tear capitalism to ribbons and those who accept the arguments of the officials and even Ed Miliband. The task of anti capitalists and revolutionaries is to link with that section which wants to fight and develop a political alternative to the bureaucracy and to Labour, as well as pushing for a fight back.

To do this we need strikes. And we need more than strikes. We need the political radicalisation in society to lend its strength and ideological clarity to the base of the unions. Socialists should apply themselves wherever possible to the rendezvous between the movement and industrial power. Only such a joining of forces can deliver us a resounding victory against austerity.

From International Socialist Group site.

Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.