The same cry has rolled across the landscape for a century and a half: do we really need trade unions? Do they have any relevance in our changing society? Or, in tune with contemporary cynicism, is trade unionism, like socialism, dead? There is little new in any of this primitive cant. Indeed, the fact that these questions have re-surfaced as part of the currently fashionable coalition-style chorus is scarcely surprising.
It reflects the emptiness of much contemporary political thinking, as well as media superficiality. Yet it would be equally superficial to ignore the hidden depth in these questions. Trade unionism, like socialism, does have questions to answer and challenges to which it must respond in language more appropriate to the vast changes now manifest across the entire global scene. So let’s examine the trade union ethos and consider what can be done to re-invent itself.
The first thing to recognise is the importance of doing precisely that; of the vital need to explain again why unions remain an essential part of any democratic society.
The fundamental case for trade unionism is rarely argued these days – least of all by union leaders. Speeches are made, conferences held and union elections take place all amid a routine flurry of the usual rhetoric. But this is not the same as re-stating the political, social and economic relevance of trade unionism to an electorate that at best is indifferent and more likely hostile to the concept.
The sheer ignorance of basic history among younger generations is mind-boggling. It is yet another reflection of our gravely flawed education system in which genuine social history is hardly ever taught in the state school system.
A simple and basic point for example: trade unions remain, as ever, the principal free and voluntary voice for justice and equality among the vast majority of people who have no other significant avenue to deal with problems in their working lives. It is notable that this applies even for the articulate in the BBC. Despite all the traumatic changes over the past two decades, it remains the unions, weakened as they are, who still form a crucial platform within a society where the market system has become so powerful in support of capital that it threatens sovereign power of the state, everywhere.
That is why it is fatuous for Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians to talk about an “all too powerful state”. The reverse is the case. It is the grip of unregulated capital that has become too powerful, especially in the most sophisticated modern nations, while trade union power and influence has declined alongside the credibility of the date.
This is particularly true of Britain, the mother of trade unionism as it was of parliamentary democracy. In fact, there is as huge a need for a more influential union movement today than at any time since the beginning of the 20th century when a pioneering generation of trade union leaders gave birth to the Labour Party. There has not been a more demanding moment to reinvent a modern trade union platform.
Nor can a newly emerging Labour Party under Ed Miliband unaided fill that gap – although a Miliband Labour government of the future could certainly help.
The current condition of worker-management relations has reached a new low as was outlined with great effect recently by David Coats, director of Work Matters Consulting, a research body dealing with employment problems. Coats claimed that the level of “employee engagement” has reached “a very high level of perceived unfairness”. That is a gentle way of saying that exploitation of workers is now at peak levels. In our very lightly regulated labour market – lightly regulated by international standards and especially European ones – British employers have now an overwhelming power to do what they want to a degree as great as it was before the First World War. This is chiefly the result of Margaret Thatcher’s legislation, but also of Tony Blair’s Government’s contempt for unions, plus its love affair with a de-regulated financial system. We should not forget that it was Blair’s Government that endorsed Thatcher’s view about the irrelevance of unions. A combination of these factors have sapped the strength and vitality from many unions – along with some serious flaws, to be sure, with union leadership itself – although it is absurd to continue blaming Arthur Scargill’s mistaken strategy during the great miners’ strike in the mid-1980s for the current abject state of trade unionism.
From his researches, Coats reports: “It is changes in the structure of the economy that are driving union membership trends not the constraints imposed by Mrs Thatcher’s trade union legislation. A more favourable legal environment may make trade union activists feel happier about the world, but it is unlikely to produce a flood of new membership applicants.”
This is a sobering message to those union leaders who believe it needs only the elimination of Thatcher’s anti-union laws to remedy the problem. Coats, a firm advocate for trade union revival, claims his research produces no evidence “that the unions are reaching the unorganised in the private sector” – although it is precisely those workers employed in it who need effective representation and a platform.
He also notes the failure of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to help make workers aware even of their limited rights on the shop floor. Hence today we have a grim picture of trade union weakness.
Coats refers to a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development which reveals only one third of British workers are engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third are largely “disengaged”, while the remaining third are indifferent. Coats is convinced this signals a huge opportunity awaiting imaginative trade union leadership and organisation “to gain the confidence of hitherto non-union” workers and to launch “an effective campaign to organise the workforce”.
He adds that: “If a new model of capitalism is to emerge as a result of the banking crisis then the task is urgent. Policy choices made over the next five to seven years could set the agenda for the next 30”.
I use these quotes from Coats because he is not among the usual voices raised in support of a trade union revival. Yet there is a wider, deeper problem which must be tackled: the sheer ignorance about the past role of unions before Thatcher’s decade came close to destroying them altogether, not only by anti-union laws but in her destruction of our basic industries leaving a social scar that continues to devastate large areas of Britain.
The Blair years could have made a substantial difference to that scene, but, alas, continued Thatcher’s contempt for trade unionism in covert guise – fed assiduously by Peter Mandelson and his elite corps of anti-socialists who were concerned primarily to close the doors on the past (as Mandelson’s memoirs admit).
They were unconcerned about – and ridiculing of – a labour history in which the trade unions, despite all their flaws and limitations, had been a vital bridge between political authority at Westminster and working life across Britain.
No other institution – outside organised religion – played such a crucial role in sustaining deprived communities. From the 19th century onwards, it was the growth of trade union influence that created the Labour Party and during the worst economic times across the whole of the 20th century, it was the unions along with the co-operatives that frequently kept communities alive, fed and infused with some hope. All that, it is true, was built around industries such as coal, steel, shipbuilding, civil engineering and transport – much of which has been destroyed while their native areas have never been re-fitted, socially or morally.
It was the unions who sent the early socialist MPs to the House of Commons and funded them – not the taxpayer – enabling them to operate even a limited form of democratic protest. That was the case until very recently and should be borne in mind when critics of MPs’ expenses exaggerate the problem while concealing historic truths.
And it was the same unions which produced men such as Aneurin Bevan, Ernest Bevin, Arthur Horner, Frank Cousins, Jack Jones and a regiment of socialist leaders without whom this country could not have survived as a democracy. They may not be known to younger generations untutored in the basics of our history, but they are as important to our national story as Winston Churchill, William Gladstone or even Henry VIII.
It is time now to for our contemporary generation of union and Labour leaders to talk about these fundamentals; to raise horizons beyond the routine and demonstrate that working people do possess a vital platform which for too long has been sidelined and weakened by a lack of political courage within the labour movement, as well as by the power of capital.
The unions have an enormous opportunity to recapture their old link between local communities and the state machine; to expand a shop stewards’ ethos into community affairs, as well as in the factories. They provided that social glue in the past; they can do it again.
Geoffrey Goodman’s books include biographies of Frank Cousins and Bill Morris and a study of the great miners’ strike of the mid-1980s