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Mac McKenna & Julie Waterson

Trade Unions in Crisis?

(January 1996)

From Socialist Review 193, January 1996.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘Trade unions are in crisis across the world. Twenty years ago they were confident, aggressive organisations able to mobilise workers’ power in strikes and on the streets. In today’s western market economies they have fallen into sharp decline, defensive and uncertain of their future.’
Financial Times, August 1995

Tory minister Michael Portillo claimed six months ago that the British had ‘kicked the habit of going on strike’. Pundits analysing recent strikes dismiss them as the last dying gasp of dinosaurs.

The real picture is somewhat more complicated. The reawakening of sections of the working class is accompanied by the burden of years of defeat and setbacks. It is both conditioned by, and in conflict with, Blairism as Labour’s leaders try to limit the class struggle in the run up to the general election.

In the 1980s significant groups of workers were taken on and beaten by Thatcher – miners, steel workers, civil servants, hospital workers and printers. These attacks led to a drop in union membership – from 13 million in 1979 to 12 million in 1981 (when the steel workers were attacked and manufacturing industry went into a massive slump), 10 million in 1989 (which is almost an exact correlation to the rise in unemployment) and 9.5 million in 1991. But this does not represent a massive haemorrhage from the trade unions. There are still 300,000 shop stewards and reps, and over a half of all workers in Britain work in a unionised workplace. Of the top 50 companies in Britain, 47 are unionised.

Thatcher won many important battles, but she certainly didn’t win the war. One significant victory was the anti-union legislation, which Blair is refusing to repeal. The new laws have disciplined the union leaders and led to the farce of the giant and potentially powerful TGWU refusing to back the 500 dockers who refused to cross picket lines in Liverpool.

Strike days hit an all time low in 1994 when only 278,000 days were ‘lost’. The total for the first nine months of 1995 was 238,000. Since then job centre staff, Merseyside firefighters, Ford and Vauxhall workers and Tate & Lyle production workers have taken selective strike action. There are, or have been, all-out strikes at Liverpool docks, Bolton College, JJ Fast Foods and Hillingdon Hospital. Ford car workers have balloted for action over pay in the new year, and Vauxhall workers have begun to take action. In November last year an unofficial strike by 7,000 postal workers in Scotland ended in victory and prompted headlines like the Daily Mail’s, ‘Bosses fear return to the bad old days’. Other papers have made similar claims.

As the fire brigades union leader Ken Cameron said in the wake of the postal strikes, ‘There’s no doubt people are saying enough is enough and the membership is moving ahead of the trade union leadership.’

But when the figures are collated, 1995 will show only a modest rise on 1994. However, it’s not simply the number of strikes that counts. After all, set against the 1979 total of 29 million days, neither year looks much to shout about. What the media reports have spotted is that our class is beginning to move again.

In terms of strikes, no path breaking pattern emerged in 1995. Most were defensive disputes initiated by the employers. Nevertheless, our side clocked up some important achievements. The eight week strike by library staff in Sheffield was a significant victory. This strike was in sharp contrast to the protracted and defeated Nalgo strikes at Newham and Islington in the 1980s.

Not normally noted for their militancy, lecturers at Southwark College raised £60,000 in solidarity as they fought a four week strike that stopped compulsory redundancies.

At Connah’s Quay power station in March UCATT emerged from the shadows when building workers in six different companies struck and won the reinstatement of two labourers.

Two other disputes speak volumes about the present period. The attempts by British Telecom bosses to sack union activist Mike Luzio, and by NHS trust managers to sack Unison branch chair and staff nurse Dave Carr were both beaten off without coming to a strike. In each case management knew they had a serious campaign for strike action on their hands and caved in. In the present climate fighting back attracts support, and the bosses know it.

The Tories have long ceased to have it all their own way. In the 1980s they won with a strategy of the carrot and the stick. An extra couple of percent was usually enough to buy off the union leaders. It was easy to think that someone else’s fight wasn’t yours. Now the attacks on workers are quickly generalised which breeds solidarity.

Thousands have turned up to the Liverpool docks demos. Even bigger numbers have contributed financially. Nearly 1,000 job centre staff joined the CPSA in the first week of their action, including a good number of casuals.

More importantly, tens of thousands of workers continue to vote to strike, only to see it thrown away by the union leaders. The NHS, British Rail and London Underground are only the most criminal of these. The survey Trends in Trade Unions, commissioned by the TUC, showed that of nearly 500 ballots examined, although 66 percent produced yes votes, in only 82 did industrial action take place. Some were victories of course, but in general the secret ballot and the use of the law have become the favoured weapons of the union leaders and the bosses respectively. So by only looking at the number of strike days it is easy to misjudge the mood of the class.

As the general election approaches and Labour rides high in the polls, the union leaders are left with the job of making sure the working class doesn’t step out of line. It isn’t always easy.

Most of the time the union leaders hold the line, using the anger of workers to win just enough concessions from hesitant bosses. But workers are more ready than ever to call a shoddy deal a sell out, and to vent their anger on the bureaucrats. Striking civil servants in Leeds managed to force their union leaders to keep the strikes going just before Xmas, despite attempts to settle with nothing new on the table.

Thatcher’s plan was to shackle the unions, and break traditions of solidarity and secondary action. Most of the recent disputes show both the limits of their achievements and the damage done by the Tories. The defeats of the past haunt us today, while at present workers’ confidence often doesn’t match the aggressiveness of the bosses’ attacks.

There is a political volatility inside the unions and active intervention, argument, debate and building solidarity are vital. We have emerged from the dark days of the 1980s. Today workers are more willing to take on the bully boys, and their struggles can begin to harness the feelings of bitterness into a wider fightback.

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