Jim Higgins

The unions

TUC Running Scared

(December 1975)

From the Spectator, 13 December 1975, p.755.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Official statistics are truly wonderful not just the ones that tell us we have two and a half children, but those trade figures, cost of living indices and the like. They have such an air of certainty about them, inspiring confidence in the statisticians, if not the facts they reveal. Governments, who normally have the appearance of bemused incompetence, display great expertise in taking all credit for good sets of figures which, they manage to suggest are a tribute to their wise and prudent stewardship. While bad figures call forth stern warnings not to he misled by one month’s returns, which are distorted by unique, unrepeatable factors. With these reservations in mind, and leaving aside the nagging doubts engendered by the Treasury’s seeming capacity to lose £4,000 million in their accounts, it could prove instructive to examine some of the figures released last week by the Department of Employment. Not just the figures but some of the surrounding circumstances.

First of all, you will he pleased to hear that by April 1975 the average male worker in this country had broken through the £3,000 per year wage barrier. Up to that date the average male’s weekly increase for the year was £13.10, several percentage points above the cost of living increase. Beside giving some added credibility to the ‘wage push’ theorists this fact pays a tribute to the effectiveness of trade union pressure during the period. Even more it points to the pressure during the period. Even more it points to the altruism being displayed by trade unionists in their acceptance of the £6 limit. For, since July this year there have been no increases over the limit and several below it. That represents the reversal of a trend, since the war, for wage increases to be based on last year’s claim plus a bit more for expanding living standards.

This “ragged trousered philanthropy” is not unknown in the trade union movement. It has been displayed at the cost of great sacrifice in two world wars and, in peace, to the greater glory of several Labour administrations. In the post-war Attlee government. Sir Stafford Cripps, a vegetarian who considered snoek a gastronomic indulgence, was able to impose a crude wage freeze that held for some time. During the early days of the first Wilson Administration, a great fund of good will was expended in voluntary restraint. So great was this in some trade union quarters, that one union insisted on taking less than it could have obtained for a section of its members, because to do so would have exceeded the 5 per cent norm.

Of course none of this lasted for very long. Pent up demand and rising expectation always broke through after a year or so. Each new attempt to control wages found the price of trade union acceptance a little higher. More and more it became necessary, not just to consult but to involve in wider and wider areas of policy, the TUC and trade union leadership, and to accept TUC social policy objectives as those of the government.

Nice though this may be for Congress House mandarins, it does carry with it some disadvantages. The closer the coincidence of view between government and unions, the greater their mutual dependence, the wider the gap between the trade union leadership and the activist rank and file member in the branches and shop steward committees. The TUC’s commitment to the £6 limit and deferred reflation, with its concomitant of even higher unemployment, will inevitably bring them into greater conflict with dissident minorities within the union.

This problem, of the dissident minority and how to deal with it has exercised the mind of a whole swathe of academics, a Royal Commission, countless politicians and leader writers. One short answer, favoured during Mr Ray Gunter’s time at the Ministry of Labour, canvassed at the Donovan Commission on Trade Unions, was to give the trade union leadership powers, through encouragement of the closed shop, to discipline and remove from employment any troublesome elements.

There is, though, a problem in attempting to discipline the active militants. In almost all unions the militants are the chaps who earn the right to be listened to by their fellows by carrying out the vital but very tedious work of local administration, sub collection and so on. Most negotiations with management are carried out by lay union officers, which makes them popular with the lads and essential to the functioning of the trade union. Without them several trade unions would falter and fail and the rest would be very ineffective indeed. Not only this, the avenue of communication with the average member is through these activists. Press and television appearances are no substitute for the union network, media communication is part of the public relations effort rather than an attempt to disseminate information.

This problem may be further illuminated by smother brief glance at the DE statistics. They indicate that there was a distinct lowering of days lost in strikes in October. At 278,000 it was the lowest for five years. Only 32,000 workers were involved in the comparatively small number of 110 disputes. All of this would tend to prove that unemployment is biting deep in the consciousness of industrial workers. A more significant fact about these same figures is that there were nearly as many strikes over redundancy problems as there were over money. If this tendency continues we will be able to learn the bitter truth that redundancy strikes are as destructive as money strikes.

Again, on the same day as the DE figures were released, a very large demonstration of trade unionists marched on the House of Commons to protest at unemployment levels. The TUC had publicly and loudly dissociated themselves from this enterprise. Circulars had been sent to all branches of affiliated unions indicating the TUC’s displeasure with the demonstration. Despite this some 20,000 workers took the well worn road from Euston to Westminster.

A manifestation of this size is not easily explained away as Mr Murray attempted to do, by references to sinister extremists. The extremists, no matter how sinister, would have considerably difficulty getting two men and a dog to demonstrate on say the £6 limit but on unemployment they are cutting with the grain. Mr Murray’s horrid dilemma was nicely displayed in the statement he issued shortly after the demonstration had passed Congress House shouting: “Murray Out” He said “Unemployment is unacceptably high ... the proposals the TUC will put to Mr Healey will be consistent with the need to beat inflation, not promote a consumption-led boom.” Translated into language trade unionists will understand that means the TUC is as committed to the government, and rising unemployment, as is the government to the TUC. They will sink or swim together. If they do sink, on a wave of rank and file, trade union revulsion, it is highly unlikely that Mrs Thatcher will benefit very much from the resultant mess.


Last updated on 2.11.2003