It was a boast of the Thatcher regime that the number of small shareholders outstripped trade unionists in the late '80s. Today both are declining rapidly. In the last year, the Trades Union Congress has shed nearly half a million members, taking it to 7.75 million. Thirteen years ago, the figure stood at 12 million. On the eve of its Blackpool conference, the picture is one of unremitting gloom. Tory rule brings the prospect of even more union legislation, which will probably clip upwards of another half million members. The continuing shake-out in industry will erode numbers further, while the trend to casual and part-time work in the service sector makes life for union recruiters difficult. Even the public sector will be harder to organise in an era when even Whitehall is headed for full-blooded privatisation.
To cap it all, Labour seems bent on a course that will ultimately strip the power of union barons to influence party policy. The unions' continuing viability will require a complete re-think of their role. The first step might be to welcome a break with Labour. The union link is an albatross round Labour's neck. From the union viewpoint, getting a sympathetic government to power is better than limited influence in a party of perpetual opposition. It might be advantageous if Tories did not see them as Labour's industrial arm.
Divorcing Labour could also precipitate a major, long overdue review of strategy. Unions remain male-dominated bodies glorifying the virtues of manual labour. That world has collapsed: a change to supporting part-time homeworkers (often self-employed) is urgently needed. The unions should be acting as a major lobbying group for this disparate but growing army which, by the turn of the century, could be employing 10% of the workforce. What it wants are better child-care facilities, simpler taxation and far less government bureaucracy restricting homeworking, less discrimination in pensions, government action on legally enforceable payment terms, and cast-iron guarantees on employment rights and pensions where applicable.
No one really speaks for this army today. It is a role tailor-made for unions. They need not neglect their existing pool of employees in industry but unions should realise that nobody gains from strikes and renounce them in favour of pendulum arbitration agreements. This would give credibility to calls for a new partnership with industry by the likes of Bill Jordan, the engineers' president (see Jordan's Surge of Power, p44). Union resources must be increasingly concentrated on providing better services for members - better deals on cars, mortgages and the like. They must increasingly use their research skills to monitor the financial activities of their members' employers (round Europe if necessary). They need to provide better legal representation for members and monitor the moves of central and local government (again on a Europe-wide basis) for developments which will affect their members. And, in a world increasingly dominated by the big pension funds, they need to ensure that employees' interests (ie their members') are taken into account by company directors. They could do this much more effectively by actively championing profit-sharing and employee share ownership schemes.
Indeed, in a world of buy-outs and unwanted businesses or divisions, they could take a direct stake in a business. Encouragingly, the Union of Democratic Mineworkers is taking such a progressive line in assembling a bid for those pits which employ its membership. Perhaps in this way, the numbers of trade unionists and small shareholders could start to rise again.