Trade unions resurgent

As the main paymasters of cash-strapped Labour, they feel entitled to influence government policy, yet their views are marooned in the past.

by Richard Reeves
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The late, great Anthony Sampson is best known for two books: The Anatomy of Britain (1963), and Who Runs this Place? - The anatomy of Britain in the 21st century (John Murray, 2004). On the inside covers of both, Sampson sketched a series of overlapping circles of varying diameter - a loose topography of the UK's key power centres: Westminster, Whitehall, the media, business. Inevitably, the circles shifted, expanded or shrivelled. But one sizable circle from 1963 had disappeared entirely in the later anatomy: trade unions.

But if unions have gone from being powerhouses of British society and politics to historical footnotes, they don't seem to have got the message. In July, Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of Unite, which represents two million workers, had the audacity not only to tell the prime minister what to say ('Blairism is dead') but also who to put in his cabinet. He told Gordon Brown: 'Clear the apologists for the big bonus brigade out of the cabinet.' And in case Brown was in any doubt about who should be cleared, he also wrote: 'Business secretary John Hutton misses no opportunity to drool over the super-rich while fretting over workers' modest pay rises.'

Business lobbyists certainly know how to put pressure on ministers, but it's hard to imagine the CBI trying to micro-manage a government in this way. There is a certain swagger in the union movement at the moment - but it has more to do with the state of the Labour party than with any successes in the labour market. The travails of the Government have inevitably influenced financial donations, and the party is close to bankruptcy.

Indeed, fund manager David Pitt-Watson turned down the job of party general secretary because of concerns about personal liability for the party's £20m debts. The job went to Ray Collins, whose last position was ... assistant general secretary of Unite. Of the £3m that Labour raised in the first quarter of 2008, more than 90% came from trade unions - £1.9m from Usdaw, the GMB and ... Unite. Perhaps Woodley's demands are not so absurd.

There is a perversity to the raw financial power being wielded by union leaders over the Labour Government - even though the impact on policy is far from clear - given the weakness of the union movement in general. In the early 1980s, when Labour was similarly reliant on trade union funding, it could at least be said that most workers were in a union: today just 28% of employees are.

The decline in union power results from a shift from manufacturing to services, the feminisation of the labour force, the reduced strike power of unions and a growing sense that the world of industrial conflict, of 'us and them', is no longer the one inhabited by most workers.

But the steady decline in union numbers disguises a more interesting story. The labour market is splitting into a unionised, increasingly militant public sector and a non-unionised, largely quiescent private sector. Among employees paid out of the public purse, 59% are in a union, compared with only 17% in the commercial sector.

Union membership is slowly declining outside the state-funded sector but has ticked up among public servants. So union membership in the private sector is low and falling, while it's high and rising in the public sector. The public-sector unions are now led by more aggressive general secretaries, and the number and frequency of strikes among teachers, postal workers and council employees is growing. Unions risk becoming one-trick ponies.

In 1894, Sidney and Beatrice Webb - founders of the Fabian Society and surely the first Labour power-couple - defined a trade union as 'a continuous association of wage earners for the pur- poses of maintaining or improving the conditions of their working lives'.

In 1894, it was fairly clear what 'improving conditions' meant: better safety provision, for sure, but above all more money for less work. But it's no longer so straightforward. Good work is as much about respect, autonomy, sociability and wellbeing as it is about hours and salary; and although money matters more on the bottom rungs of the labour market, it is pure snobbery to imagine that the other ingredients of a decent job matter less.

Unions therefore need to widen their horizons and engage with cultural issues as well as the economic ones that have been their preoccupation for more than a century. It was disheartening that when Nicola Brewer, CEO of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, gave a thoughtful speech suggesting that increases in maternity leave might entrench the assumption that caring for children was women's work, it was only the unions that shot her down. The GMB said she was 'penalising women for having babies in employment while implying that women should go "back to the kitchen sink" and have no aspirations for a career'.

Given that women's groups welcomed Brewer's comments, and given her day job, the attack was ludicrous. It is the GMB that is stuck in the past, not Brewer, but it is precisely this lack of imagination in some pockets of the union movement that hastens their decline.

Unions are in danger of a narrow, defensive future battling for the pay and pensions of public-sector workers. A number of unions are calling for a change of leadership: perhaps they should start with themselves.

- Richard Reeves may be contacted at: richard@richard-reeves.com.

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