Tribune, 4 September 1992

On the eve of the TUC Congress, Paul Anderson looks at the issues facing Britain’s trade unions

Next week’s TUC Congress in Blackpool was supposed to be the first in years that everyone took seriously.

With Labour in government, the unions would be back in the corridors of power, if not enjoying beer and sandwiches with Neil Kinnock at Number Ten.

Instead, Labour lost the election and the unions face four or five more years out in the cold. Far from being a celebration of a return to political relevance, Blackpool looks set to be dominated by rumination over the unions’ long-standing problems.

The most obvious of these is that the number of union members is declining and has been for more than a decade. Accurate figures are difficult to come by because trade unions exaggerate their membership figures. But in 1979, the peak of union membership, there were 12,172,508 workers in TUC-affiliated unions according to the unions’ own statistics. This year’s figure has yet to be published, but the estimate is about 7,757,000, a drop of more than one-third. On these trends, membership of TUC-affiliates will be lower at the end of this year than at any time since the second world war.

Last year, the vast majority of affiliated unions saw membership decline. Of those with more than 100,000 members, only two gained members last year: NALGO and the CPSA. The AEU (now merged with the non-TUC EETPU in the AEEU) experienced a net loss of 99,000, 11 per cent of the 1991 total, and both the TGWU and the GMB suffered net losses of 8 per cent. All trade unions, but particularly the big general unions, experience a constant turnover of membership. The GMB, for example, which says that its loss rates are better now than six months ago, is currently recruiting 17,000 new members a quarter, but 25,000 are leaving.
Most unions blame the recession for declining membership. “While these figures are disappointing, they say more about the state of the economy than they do about trade unions,” said Norman Willis, the TUC general secretary, when the January 1992 membership statistics were released.

But although the recession is part of the problem (when workers lose their jobs, they usually leave their union and no one joins a union when unemployed) it is not the whole story. With notable exceptions, union membership declined even during the boom years of the late eighties.

The reasons for this are many and complex, and differ from union to union. In the early eighties, the decline of manufacturing hit all the blue-collar unions hard, but particularly the TGWU and AEU. Membership of the NUM collapsed because of pit closures and the secession of the Nottinghamshire miners over the 1984-85 strike. The print unions declined as a result of changes in printing technology.

More generally, unions have always found it easiest to recruit and organise among full-time permanent workers in large enterprises with employers who recognise unions. Since the late seventies, however, employers have become increasingly reluctant to recognise unions, the average size of the workplace has shrunk and there has been a massive growth in the importance of part-time and temporary work.

Add the effects of 13 years of Tory hostility to trade unions, and it is perhaps unsurprising that the unions have fallen on hard times. The question is what they can do about it.

The process of small unions amalgamating with each other to form bigger ones is almost as old as the movement itself but it has noticeably gathered pace as unions have grappled with the financial problems caused by declining membership and looked to mergers as a way of reducing overheads. Since 1979, the number of TUC affiliates has fallen from 109 to 74.

The TGWU has swallowed the agricultural workers. What was the GMWU has swallowed the boilermakers, textile workers and garment workers and acquired a white-collar wing, APEX, to become today’s GMB. Four print unions have been reduced to one, the GPMU; the SOPS and the CSU have become the NUCPS; ASTMS and TASS have created MSF; the NUR and NUS have formed RMT; and the AEU and EETPU have amalgamated into the AEEU. Next year, COHSE, NUPE and NALGO will merge into a giant public sector union, Unison, with around 1,400,000 members.

All this might be a mere taste of what is to come, however. The industrial logic of a merger between the TGWU and the GMB has long been apparent to many, but deep cultural and political differences have prevented it from being taken seriously by officials in either union. But now there are signs that the ice has been broken. No official merger talks are going on yet, but both unions are moving towards closer co-operation and have agreed to end their traditional rivalry.

With Unison in place, the creation of a giant “Transport, General and Municipal Workers Union”, some 2 million strong, would mean that nearly half of British trade unionists were concentratectin two unions. It would also inevitably put pressure on medium-sized unions to merge, either with one another or with one of the big two.

It is not too ridiculous to suggest that, within a decade, four or five super-unions might account for 95 per cent of British trade unionists: say, a TGWU-GMB-RMTUSDAW-UCATT-NUM general union, a Unison-CPSA-NUCPS-IPMS-IRSF public sector union, a GPMU-BECTU-NCU-UCWSTE media and communications union, an NUT-NAS/UWT-NATFHE-AUT education union and a BIFU-MSF-AEEU manufacturing and banking union.

This is speculation, of course: plenty stands in the way of the development of super-unions. But they are certainly in the air, even if the TUC Congress will refer to them only obliquely in a debate on the future of the TUC. Even before the next round of mergers, many of the big trade unions are wondering whether they couldn’t do on their own all that the TUC currently does for them. There has been constant off-the-record criticism from the big unions of the Willis regime at Congress House and several of them submitted Congress resolutions this year calling for the TUC to focus its work rather more on areas that individual unions cannot cover.

With money tight, a radical slimming-down of the TUC seems inevitable in the next eouple of years unless it can make itself indispensable in new ways. But financial pressures are not the only reason that trade unions are thinking big.

With the completion of the European internal market at the end of this year, and with the growing importance of the EC in determining the social and industrial context in which British unions operate, they are haying to develop European strategies for organisation and lobbying.

There are, naturally, divisions over tactics on the Maastricht treaty. Although the union movement is united in condemning the British Government’s opt-out on the social chapter and in its enthusiasm for stronger links with continental unions, there is likely to be a big argument in Blackpool next week about whether the unions should press for ratification of Maastricht even without the social chapter (the GMB position) or whether they should oppose ratification.
In the longer term, however, the most fundamental disagreements over Europe are likely to focus on the question of how far the unions should go for a continental “works council” model of industrial relations in Britain. Some unions see works councils with legal rights to represent workers as a step forward for British trade unionism, particularly if the works councils follow the German practice of excluding management representation. (The French system is of joint worker-management works councils.) Others, particularly on the left, argue that works councils of any description would weaken union organisation and should be opposed.

It is difficult to discern which position currently has the upper hand, although there is no doubt that advocates of works councils have multiplied in the past few years as the unions’ workplace strength has shrunk and the Tory Government has destroyed the last remnants of union influence in the corridors of power. The trend is likely to continue as the realisation sinks in that the April election result has ruled out the possibility for at least four years even of the partial return to corporatism promised by Labour’s “National Economic Assessment”.

Indeed, the outlook for the next few years of this Tory Government is bleak for the unions. The Conservative manifesto promised a raft of legislation to make life difficult and a new Employment Bill is one of the main pieces of business in the next session of Parliament.
The Bill is designed, in the words of the manifesto, to “make automatic deduction of union membership dues without written authorisation unlawful”, to “give individuals greater freedom in choosing a union”, to “legislate to require that all pre-strike ballots are postal and subject to independent scrutiny, and that at least seven days’ notice of a strike is given after a ballot” and to give people who use public services “the right to restrain the disruption of those services by unlawful action”.

What many unions fear most is the proposal to end “check-off payments of dues, although the GMB and others have long argued that this is a notoriously inefficient way of collecting subscriptions and should be replaced by a system of individual workers paying by bankers’ order.

Almost as disruptive is the idea of giving individuals “greater freedom in choosing a union”, by which the Government means the ending of the Bridlington Agreement among the unions not to poach members from one another.

This particularly affects the position of the non-TUC Electrical Section of the AEEU which (as the EETPU) was expelled from the TUC for poaching in 1988 and has since taken an unremittingly predatory attitude towards other unions organising in areas where it has members. The AEEU as a whole will be balloting soon on TUC affiliation and the big unions want the former EETPU back in the club. Critics of the electricians who want the former EETPU to give up its ill-gotten gains before it is allowed back are worried that a TUC without Bridlington will give the AEEU carte blanche to carry on as before.

Blackpool is likely to witness a lively debate on the question of re-admitting the electricians. Almost as spectacular will be the now annual showdown, between Arthur Scargill of the NUM and nearly everyone else, on Tory anti-union laws, with Scargill arguing for non-co-operation and the rest insisting that the Tories’ legislation should be replaced with a positive framework for industrial relations legislation. As usual in recent years, however, the most interesting discussions at this TUC Congress will be the informal ones that take place in the bars and restaurants around the conference centre.

AEEU: Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union; AEU: Amalgamated Engineering Union; APEX: Association of Professional, Executhss, Clerical and Computer Staff; ASTMS: Association of Scientific, Technical end Managerial Staffs; AUT: Association of University Teachers; BECTU: Broadcasting, Entertainment and Cinematograph and Theatre Union; BIFU: Banking, insurance and Finance Union; COHSE Confederation of Health Service Employees; CPSA: Civil and Public Services Association; CSU: Civil Service Union; EETPU: Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union; GMWU: General and Municipal Workers’ Union; GPMU: Graphical, Paper and Media Union; IPMS: Instibnion of Professionals, Managers and Specialists; IFtSF: Inland Revenue Staff Federation; MSF: Manufacturing, Science, Finance; NALGO: National and Local Government Officers Association; NAS/UWT National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers; NATFHE: National Associsdion of Teachers In Further and Higher Education; NCU: National Communications Union; NUCPS: National Union of Civil and Public Servants; NUM: National Union of Mineworkers; NUPE National Union of Public Employees; NUT: National Union of Teachers; RMT: National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers; STE Society of Telecom Executives; TASS: Technical, Aciministfative and Supervisory Staffs; TGWU: Transport and General Workers’ Union; UCW: Union of Communication Workers; UCKIT: Union of Construction, Ailed Trades and Technicians; USDAW: Union of Shop, DIstriludive and Ailed Workers

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