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International Socialism, Winter 1995


Peter Morgan

Trade unions and strikes:
a snapshot of the industrial scene


From International Socialism 2:69, Winter 1995.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


We are not going back to the old battles. I will say now that there’s going to be no repeal of all Tory union laws. That is not what the country or your members want. Ballots before strikes are here to stay. No mass or flying pickets. All the ghosts of time past, they are exorcised. Leave them where they lie.

So said Tony Blair in September at this year’s TUC conference, in a speech which received a rather subdued response from the delegates.

Blair’s view is often supported by politicians and academics alike. They suggest that we now have a more rational and level headed way of conducting industrial relations in Britain, where negotiation and conciliation prevail over industrial action. When Tony Blair talks about the benefits of Thatcherism, the so-called ‘reform’ of the trade unions must be at the front of his mind.

It is also argued that trade unions are less popular than they were 10 or 15 years ago. Trade union membership (and TUC membership) has fallen since the high point of the 1970s and the unions are unable to reverse this decline. Thus, the argument goes, workers are less inclined to support strike action, and strikes are becoming a thing of the past – as Blair says, ‘ghosts of time past’.

A look at the official strike statistics seems to bear out this view. The Employment Gazette of July 1995 reports that in 1994, ‘some 0.28 million working days were lost – less than half of last year’s total of 0.65 million and below the 0.53 million in 1992, 0.76 million in 1991 and 1.90 million in 1990 – this year was the lowest calendar year since records began in 1891.’ And it goes on to say, ‘There were 205 stoppages of work because of labour disputes, the lowest calendar year since records began in 1891’. [1]

A look at these ‘headline’ statistics gives the impression that strikes are largely becoming a thing of the past. This feeds into the argument that the working class is declining, that the growth of part time and white collar work means it is more difficult to organise and unionise large sections of the workforce, and consequently trade unions are becoming less relevant. After all, if there are few or no strikes and little or no conflict between workers and employers the next step will be to question the function and relevance of trade unions themselves. The 1990s, it is argued, continues the trend seen in the 1980s of a decline in the power of the trade unions, a declining level of strikes and a diminishing of trade union power.

Two new surveys by the TUC dispel many of these myths and show that the level of industrial action is greater than the official figures tend to suggest. They also show that there are often groups of workers who are willing to take strike action, and who vote for strike action. However, the union leaders use this willingness as a bargaining chip when they go back to negotiate with the bosses – and the trade union leaders then call the action off.

The report Trends in Trade Unions was commissioned by the TUC in the summer of this year and involved a survey of all the TUC affiliated unions which represent some 6.9 million workers. The report was divided into six sections – industrial action; ballots; recognition and derecognition; industrial tribunals; legal action; and the unions as an organisation. This is complemented by another TUC survey compiled in September this year which focused on workers’ attitudes to trade unions and the insecurity they face at work.

What the Trends in Trade Unions report shows is that there is a far greater willingness to take strike action among workers than the official figures suggest. Of the 33 trade unions questioned on industrial action ballots, 19 (or 57 percent) of them had organised ballots in the last six months, and it was found that most ballots had produced ‘yes’ votes in favour of industrial action. Of the 494 ballots where there are details available. 324 (66 percent) had produced majorities for action. Yet, equally revealing, despite these majorities, in only 82 (25 percent) of these cases did industrial action actually take place.

This pattern was also seen in the recent ACAS report in which it was discovered that in 1994 there were 1,783 ballots for industrial action with 70 percent going in favour of action. Yet the Department of Employment figures, as seen in the Employment Gazette, suggests there were only 205 strikes.

So the real picture that emerges is one of anger in the workplace, which is being supported by a ‘yes’ vote in ballots for action, yet more often than not the trade union leaders squander this opportunity and use the majority vote in the ballot to strengthen their position in negotiations with the employers in order to agree some deal. There are numerous examples of this over the last few months – the tubes dispute in London, the national NHS ballot over pay, and the dispute in the Post Office. What the figures fail to register is the increasing anger of workers in these industries, for example, which continued even after hopes of strike action had been frustrated. So the RCN voted overwhelmingly to ditch its no-strike policy and over a thousand ASLEF tube workers, after their leaders called off their strike, joined the other union, the RMT, which carried on with industrial action on the tubes for longer.

When we look at strike action itself, the majority of trade unions that responded to the TUC survey noted that nearly three quarters (72 percent) of industrial action lasts less than 24 hours and that,

Overall industrial action was fairly successful with 59 percent of those responding saying they had won all, or some demands. And no unions reported victimisations.

It is this sort of strike action that does not get on the official statistics. When the Department of Employment compiles strike figures it excludes action which lasts less than 24 hours and involve less than ten workers. Therefore, official figures can often give a distorted picture of the action that takes place day in, day out on the ground. Furthermore, it excludes those workers who ballot for action, yet fail to take it to a strike. So the recent sacking of Dave Carr, the Unison steward at UCH hospital, which saw a vote for all out strike action amongst the workforce, would not get a mention in the government figures. Yet this dispute saw a growth in the trade union membership and a high level of solidarity amongst sections of the local community and local workplaces. In the face of this, management backed down, Dave Carr was reinstated and the union was strengthened. In a key struggle at this particular workplace, a very important hospital in central London, the union came out on top and it was seen as a great victory against the management who will be a little bit more reluctant to take on the workforce in the future.

If trade unions were a weak and declining force with little or no relevance, then we would expect to see the employers move onto the offensive and make some moves towards derecognition. This is what happened in 1985 when Rupert Murdoch moved the printing of News International publications to Wapping, east London, and sacked his workforce in an attempt to smash the union. This recent TUC survey suggests that employers are not nearly as confident today. Of the 32 unions that responded, some 18 (or 56 percent) had secured new recognition deals in the last six months. The overwhelming majority of these deals were for full recognition:

Of the 70 separate agreements concluded 62 (89 percent) gave full negotiating rights, whilst six gave partial recognition only... Whilst some new deals, particularly in education and health, are the outcome of privatisation and the loss of national recognition, the remaining deals represent significant advances. At SCA Aylesford, for example, the union reached a recognition agreement at a new plant employing 300 workers and at Northern Foods the agreement for full recognition covers 1,200 workers. The largest single group of workers covered, 5,000 at Manpower who have gained partial recognition, represents an important breakthrough for the banking and insurance sector where casualisation has resulted in a massive increase in agency employment.

In contrast to this the survey found that only a minority of unions (ten of the 32) had experienced any form of derecognition and where this had occurred they were often single examples. A total of 20 employers had derecognised to some extent although only 12 of these had completely derecognised (the other eight introduced personal contracts or reduced the scope of recognition). This hardly presents a picture of a trade union movement that is becoming largely irrelevant.

In fact, as the TUC notes, trade unionists make up nearly one third of the workforce. About half of all employees – over 10 million people – work in recognised workplaces, and as many as 44 of the top 50 companies recognise trade unions. Trade union ‘density’ (the proportion of the workforce that is unionised) remains remarkably high. To take some examples of public sector workforces: rail transport (83 percent); post (82 percent); public sector construction (76 percent); sanitation and refuse (75 percent); non-rail transport (71 percent); justice, public security and fire (69 percent); hospitals (69 percent); public sector manufacturing (67 percent); schools (63 percent).

Even if we look at manufacturing which, because of the changes and restructuring of British capitalism over the last 10 to 15 years, has seen some of the older ‘traditional’ workplaces decline, the level, or density, of trade unionism is still quite high: motor manufacture and transport (55 percent); metals (50 percent); mineral products (48 percent); coke, petrol and nuclear (46 percent). [2]

Whilst it is true that there has been a decline in trade union membership since the high point of the 1970s, most of this can be attributed to the growth in unemployment. It is also the case that the larger the workplace the easier it is to organise and the more likely it is that the workers will he part of a trade union. Today’s Trade Unionists shows that overall 42 percent of those in workplaces which employed more than 25 people were unionised (over 5.9 million or 84 percent of all members), and 16 percent of employees in workplaces with less than 25 employees were unionised (about 1.1 million or 16 percent of all members).

Trade union rates in Britain compare very favourably with other EC countries. The OECD has published estimates based on employee membership of trade unions and these varied from 83 percent in Sweden to 11 percent in Spain. In 1990 Britain also had a higher unionisation rate than Germany, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Switzerland.

So what we are seeing is a working class that still has a relatively high level of organisation despite the attacks, recessions and setbacks it has suffered over the last 15 years. Within large sectors of the economy the level of unionisation and the power of the workers remain high. Indeed when you consider how important the postal workers, telecom workers, council workers, or health workers are (to take just a small cross section of the workforce), not to mention those who work in the food giants such as Tesco, Sainsbury or Asda (firms which are involved in their own cut-throat competition) you begin to see that the trade unions are still a force with which the employers must reckon.

But this still leaves that section of the working class who for one reason or another are not in a trade union – what reasons do they give for not being a part of what is still the largest single organisation in Britain? What is apparent is that when workers are thrown into conflict those who are organised in trade unions have a greater chance of success than those who are not. With the government attempting to impose another round of pay deals, and with unemployment still, arguably, at near 4 million, it would seem logical for workers to join a union.

Furthermore one of the things that has characterised the last decade has been the attack on what is called ‘the quality of life’, which means things like job security, hours worked, holidays and so on. In Britain the working week has grown from an average of 42.3 hours in 1983 to 43.4 hours in 1992. This increased working week is accompanied by workers feeling more insecure at work. A recent TUC report [3] asked people what they thought about their job and working conditions and found that 70 percent agreed that they are less secure at work now than they were two years ago. Nor were respondents more hopeful for the future. When asked if their job would be more secure in two years time, over half (56 percent) said they would be less safe.

The survey also found that nearly one in three (31 percent) of workers agreed that people at work were afraid to take time off work sick because they feared it would count against them, and 44 percent agreed that people where they worked often felt pressured into working through their lunch hour or staying late to get the job done. Also over a third (35 percent) agreed that they had no choice over working ‘unsocial’ hours and one in four (24 percent) said they were working more unsocial hours than they wanted to. As a result the TUC concludes: ‘The data paints a picture of workplaces where most people feel insecure, and many are under pressure with no choice about the hours they work but fear victimisation from their managers if they complain.’

However, against this background of an increasingly insecure labour market, trade unions have become more popular and more people believe they have an important role to play in the workplace. The TUC asked if workers thought that trade unions help protect their interests and nearly four in five (77 percent) agreed, compared to one in eight (13 percent) who disagreed. As the survey says:

These results suggest that many of the 14 million employees who are not trade union members nevertheless feel that unions help protect the interests of people at work. The poll shows that even among non-trade union members 70 percent agreed or strongly agreed with this statement – this represents about 10 million employees not in union membership. These high levels of support were found across both full and part time workers, amongst men and women and across different ‘socio-economic’ groups, such as white collar, skilled manual, and less skilled manual and non-manual. Only 16 percent of non-members said they disagreed that unions protect people like them.

In the face of this why is it that trade union membership is not higher? If, after all, workers are being attacked at work, in terms of their pay and conditions, security and control, why do they not join the one organisation they agree is there to protect them?

The British Social Attitudes Survey (BSAS) in 1989 looked at some of the reasons why workers did not join trade unions and asked how important a number of reasons were. The TUC survey asked similar questions and the two sets of data give some idea of the relative importance of different factors and suggests how they may have changed over time.

The BSAS suggested that, in the case of workers in recognised workplaces who are not union members, the main factors were that they could see no advantage to joining (44 percent) or they felt it was not appropriate to their work. Only 26 percent disagreed with unions in principle. And of those working in non-union workplaces about 22 percent said that disagreement in principle was an important reason for not joining a union.

However, if we compare this to 1995, fewer people in the TUC survey had a disagreement with trade unions in principle – only 10 percent gave this as a reason for not joining, a great deal lower than the BSAS six years ago. There was also a strikingly low level of disagreement in principle with unions among part time workers – only 6 percent – confirming that lower unionisation rates for part time workers are more to do with the type of job, the industrial sector and the size of the workplace than a fundamentally different attitude to trade unions.

Both surveys confirmed the idea that the main reason non-members were not a part of the union was that the union had not seriously attempted to recruit them. The TUC survey found that 55 percent of respondents said that the reason they did not join a union was because there was no union at the workplace – a problem implied from the BSAS survey from 1989. But more importantly 45 percent of respondents stated that one of the reasons they had not joined was because they had not been asked to.

There are a number of important conclusions that can be drawn from all this.

  1. The level of strike activity is far higher than the figures show. While there have not been major confrontations involving, for example, flying or mass pickets that are normally associated with a high level of industrial action, and we must recognise that this is a weakness, we should not conclude from this that there are no strikes. There is a lot of action of 24 hours and less that fails to register officially, and this is a sign of growing working class confidence.
  2. The vast majority of strike ballots produce a ‘yes’ vote for action which shows a greater willingness of workers to strike for their demands. The fact that the majority of these fail to lead to action means there is increasing bitterness against the trade union leaders who, more often than not, use the ballot as a negotiating tool, and often sell the workers short. The term ‘sell out’ is more common today than it has been for many years.
  3. The continued strength of the trade union movement is shown by the fact that there has not been an serious attempt by employers at derecognising unions. In fact there have been some significant gains in trade union recognition, which show the unions have survived the assaults of the 1980s intact and are still viewed with a certain amount of fear by the employers.
  4. Trade unions in the 1990s are becoming increasingly popular with wider sections of the working class. Even among those workers who are not union members, the main reason they have not joined is not because they are hostile to the unions but because the union leaders have failed to recruit them to the union.
  5. Larger sections of the working class feel less secure at work and work longer hours than for many years. And more workers feel their jobs will be less secure in two years time than they are today. Combined with the high levels of unemployment and the assault over pay there is a growing level of bitterness and anger among wider sections of the working class.

A combination of all these factors means that the working class is better placed to fight the battles that lie ahead than Tony Blair and many trade union leaders would have us believe. The 1980s may be remembered as full of attacks on and defeats for the working class, but all the signs are there that the first half of the 1990s is a period of the re-emergence of working class strength and confidence that the employers ignore at their peril.


1. Employment Gazette, July 1995, p. 279.

2. Today’s Trade Unionists (TUC, August 1995).

3. Trade Unions and Insecurity at Work (TUC, September 1995).

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