Trade unions have a role to play in tomorrow's digital economy—if only their leaders could see itby Philip Collins / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
There are too many candidates, alas, for the title of the moment trade unionism went wrong. The dire years of 1974 and 1978 cast a long shadow, even now. But, as a metaphor for a particular tale of trade unionism, it is hard to improve upon the catastrophic events of 1984. The Vice President of the National Union of Mineworkers, Mick McGahey, put the point with a candour that was so revealing it must have been inadvertent. Pressed to conduct a ballot on strike action but afraid it would draw what he saw as the wrong conclusion, McGahey said “we shall not be constitutionalised out of a defence of our jobs.”
The strike of 1984 is an incident in a familiar and mostly tragic drama. The story unfolds through aggressive and increasingly politicised trade union leadership. It is fronted by men who act as if the best way of communicating an unpopular point is to say it again, this time even louder. It is a story of the decline of once proud single-trade unions, merged into giant conglomerates without any remaining contact either with region or occupation. It is a story of a slow death by consolidation. Unions are increasingly concentrated in the public sector as new professions are created whose workers do not see the need for union representation of the conventional kind. The numbers of members keeps falling and the leadership which, for a generation, had pinned the Labour Party in the centre of politics, shifted to the irrelevant left. It is a tale of decline unto death, if we are not careful, which ends in unpopular action, for dubious industrial causes, such as the series of strikes currently turning the London transport network into chaos.
“The tragic truth of trade unionism is that the decline was not inevitable, though it may be unstoppable”
The Labour Representation Committee, the predecessor of the Labour Party, was established to facilitate the passage of working men to parliament. The trade unionists of the turn of the 20th century were the first group to make the case for victory. They wanted power to herald change in the conditions of life for working men and women (it was mostly men, at the time). The notion that there are abstract principles worth losing for would have struck that hard-headed generation as the most obvious offence against common sense. Today’s trade unionists are often accused of not knowing their politics. It is worse than that. They don’t know their history, either.
The tragic truth of trade unionism is that the decline was not inevitable, though it may be unstoppable. There is an alternative history of trade unionism that can be told which is drowned out by the raucous politics. It is the story of working men coming together to seek better conditions for their colleagues, a story of community services and mutual help. It is the story of the growth of the largest voluntary associations in the country, fostering self-reliance and independence from a state that the early trade unionists never trusted. It is a story of improving health and safety records at work, better wages, more hospitable conditions, many of those advantages won by collective negotiation by trade unionists sensitive to the needs of the business, men who understood that a profit was needed for the company to carry on paying the wages.
This story is true, too, even today. Trade unions do a lot of good work which is obscured by trade unionists such as Len McCluskey, the General Secretary of Unite. It is time to reclaim trade unionism from its dire recent politics and time to reclaim it for radical liberalism, whence it came. Trade unions are the bequest of the Labour Party’s hidden tradition of non-state radicalism. Suitably reformed, suitably modernised, the trade union movement could and should be part of a viable future for the Labour Party.
For that to be the case it is important to attend to the origins of the movement. The first national congress of the trade unions, which met in 1868, was comprised largely of the trades—hence the name—from the private sector. The first gathering was formed by the carpenters, the bricklayers, the printers and the bookbinders. It had only been two decades since these unions had gone from regional to national institutions and they were single-trade, private sector bodies, offering collective representation to the private entrepreneur and the small business. They brought together the many diverse workers in a creative market economy. If that first trade union congress were to be held today along similar lines there would be just as many creative trades represented, but most of the work they do would be invisible. The fact that it is hard even to envisage such an event tells us how far trade unionism has travelled from its origins.
The main dispute about the function of trade unionism was written into it from the beginning. Sidney and Beatrice Webb followed the late Victorian constitutionalist AV Dicey in believing that unions were instruments of state collectivism. The Webbs regarded as a compliment what Dicey had meant as an insult. That was not how the unions saw themselves. The purpose of collective organisation was not to become an estate of the realm but precisely to impose limits on the power of the state to encroach on the working practices of the individual which were embodied, for trade unionists, most egregiously in the Taff Vale judgement in 1902, which held unions liable for the losses incurred by companies during strikes.
The trade union was voluntary association writ large. It was the collective body asserting the primacy of its members over the coagulated power of the state. This did not come from Marxism so much as the everyday experience of running a small business. To read extracts from the early proceedings of the congresses of the trade unions is more like eavesdropping on an assembly of today’s Federation of Small Businesses than on a contemporary council of Unite.
At the 1894 congress, Frederick Rogers of the bookbinders, perhaps the most able trade unionist of his era, said that “there must be an independent life within the state to prevent government becoming tyranny and the trade unions will be chief among those who shall call that independent life into being.” Rogers went on to become the first chairman of the Labour Representation Committee. It is obvious from these words, which would have been echoed from the platform by many colleagues, that the whole Labour movement might easily have taken a more voluntary route. GDH Cole later characterised this as a battle between the centralisers and the federalisers, a battle the latter decisively lost.
From the very beginning, the Webbs were convinced that trade unionism was moving from what they called “mutual insurance” to “legal enactment”. Sadly, they were right. This argument about the role of the trade union has run ever since and there is a paradox in success. Whenever the trade unions succeed in enshrining a law the need for voluntary bargaining recedes a little. The more working practice becomes a matter of statute the less the need for regular negotiation with the trade union. The voluntary association thus stands in a different tradition from the enshrined right. This is why the trade union movement initially opposed the introduction of a minimum wage. When the rights are a matter of law the dialogue between the union and the employers is passed over. In a way which Mick McGahey did not mean, the trade unions have been constitutionalised out of their jobs.
This is the big story that lies behind the decline of trade unionism in Britain. It is often said that unions were strong in manufacturing industries, which have declined, and weak in the growing parts of the economy, like the service sector and businesses based on new technologies and that is true. After a precipitous fall, from 33 per cent of the workforce in 1995 to 18 per cent now, manufacturing today has a below average proportion of trade union members. Food services and accommodation, by contrast, has just 4 per cent of its workforce in a trade union.
However bad a failure on the part of union recruitment this is (and it definitely is), the landscape of industrial relations is more comfortable for workers than it was in the late 19th century. Working conditions are incomparably more hospitable, pay is regulated and a high minimum level enforced, and the employee now has a panoply of labour rights against the employer. To that extent, the modern employee in every industry is standing on the shoulders of the trade union negotiators who have gone before.
The decline in numbers, though, has been serious. The numerical peak of trade unionism was 1979 when 13m people were members. Even the fact that there are half as many today does not tell the whole sorry story. Trade unionism in Britain is slowly becoming a public sector phenomenon. Between 1995 and 2010, public sector membership of trade unions grew by 381,000. The private sector membership level declined by 905,000 over the same period. There are now only 2.7m trade union members in the private sector, the original powerhouse of the movement—that is one in every seven private sector workers. In the public sector, every other worker is a member. The membership is also old. Almost 40 per cent of trade union members are over 50 years of age. In the British economy as a whole, 28 per cent of employees are in the same age group.
Apart from making the movement increasingly unrepresentative of the workforce as a whole—more northern, more reliant on public spending, older, less likely to be employed by a small company—this is an invitation to premature retirement because unions are weak to non-existent in parts of the economy which, unlike the public sector, are set to grow. The engines of growth in any economy are small companies, in the days when they are on the way to becoming large ones. Trade unions are hopelessly unsuccessful in securing recruits in smaller companies. In companies with more than 50 employees, 33 per cent are union members. In firms with fewer than 50 employees the number falls to just 16 per cent.
“It is tempting to let trade unionism slowly commit suicide.”
That is partly because of the diffuse effort involved but it is also partly that, happily pickling in their public sector redoubts, too many trade union leaders have not tried hard enough. The new industries of the digital economy, for example, are terra incognita. There is, as yet, very little response from organised labour to the threat that automation poses to traditional forms of labour. Indeed, it is precisely in those sectors of the economy most vulnerable to automation that trade unionism is residually strong.
It is tempting, when one of the noisy advocates for trade unionism appears on television demanding no change to an established privilege, to let trade unionism slowly commit suicide. The current leadership has at least as much interest in fighting the government as it does in securing good terms and conditions for its membership. The government has brought forward a rather punitive trade union bill which makes it more difficult to be a member by preventing public sector workers from having their union levy deducted from the payroll, but it would be a shame if the next few years saw the resumption of conflict.
There is, after all, a good conservative case for the trade unions, which are remedial rather than revolutionary organisations. It was Benjamin Disraeli who legalised picketing despite strong opposition from William Gladstone. In 1979 more trade unionists voted Tory than voted Labour, and a third of trade unionists do so habitually. Despite the demonology of the left, the Margaret Thatcher years were not, in fact, entirely marked by hostility to trade unions. They were certainly marked by hostility to certain trade union leaders, notably the cartoon-like figure of Arthur Scargill, his legs still running as he careered over the cliff, but that is quite another matter. Much of the union legislation of the 1980s gave the individual trade unionist rights against the union leadership. It was a strange echo of the old argument between the Webbs and Frederick Rogers. The powerful trade union leadership of the 1970s and 1980s had become, in effect, an arm of the state. For all the anger about that period, at least some of which is synthetic, there is no appetite to repeal tort liability, reintroduce the closed shop or restore the right of secondary picketing.
There is also a strong case for trade unions from the point of view of workers. It still makes material sense to be a member of a trade union. Indeed, the case is getting stronger. The trend in advanced economies, especially in Britain and the United States as Thomas Piketty has shown, is that the returns to capital are growing as the returns to labour have been falling. The workers are taking less of the proceeds of growth than once they were. The best way to remedy this structural injustice is through collective bargaining and the representation of workers by intelligent trade unions.
There is no doubt that representation works. The percentage difference in average gross hourly earnings between those who are members of a union and those who are not is 21.6 per cent in the public sector and 8.1 per cent in the private sector. There are still unscrupulous employers, exploiting zero-hours contracts, for example, to keep people on a string in the name of flexibility. The work of agency that unions do on behalf of employees remains vital. Where employees are themselves articulate and powerful it can nevertheless reduce the heat of negotiation to field an informed third party. Where employees are neither articulate nor powerful, union representatives are giving them a voice that would otherwise not be heard. The taxi firm Uber is accused, for example, of breaching its duty on pay, holidays and health and safety because it defines its drivers, without any of the attendant benefits, as partners rather than as workers. The GMB union has carried the argument on behalf of the drivers that, contrary to the claim of the company, they are conventional employees who require good terms and conditions, not a mythical partnership which is all clever redefinition and no material benefits.
For more work like that to be viable, trade unions have to change or, rather, to return to what they did once and to amplify what, at their best, they do today. At Nissan in Sunderland, unions and management have together produced the most productive car plant in Europe. At the steel plant in Redcar, Community saved jobs by finding a new investor. As Michael Leahy, Community’s General Secretary very pithily puts it, “I’ve always believed the force of argument is more effective in delivering for members than the argument of force.”
Imaginative leadership of this kind is not, unfortunately, common. Whenever a modernising project has been on offer, from Barbara Castle’s “In Place Of Strife” onwards, union leaders have rejected it. With less obdurate leadership it is not inconceivable that worker representation on the boards of large companies, which was discussed in the Mond-Turner talks after the 1926 general strike and the forgotten Bullock Report of 1977, could have been achieved. The force of argument might have produced what the argument of force could not. Worker representation, which is a perfectly reasonable hope and is common in Germany, was written off as left-wing utopianism when it was suggested by Ed Miliband.
The best way to revive trade unionism would be for new entrants to come into the marketplace (the very fact that language sounds inappropriate illustrates the problem). Even a success story such as Community illustrates the traditional trade union response to decline. Community was formed in 2004, a merged entity that swallowed up the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation; the Knitwear, Footwear and Apparel Trades Union; the Carpet Weavers’ Union; and the National League for the Blind and Disabled. This steady consolidation has created a union landscape dominated by Unite, Unison and the GMB.
Instead of consolidation to nothing, there is an urgent need for new associations to recruit among professions that are, for the moment, immune to the allure of trade union membership. There are isolated instances of this starting to happen such as, for example, the freelancers’ union. The number of self-employed people has risen dramatically in recent years but average earnings have fallen and freelancers do not enjoy the social protection of those in permanent, corporate employment.
In recent years, Cooperatives UK has come together with Bectu, the media and entertainment trade union, and the Musicians’ Union to give better representation to freelance musicians, broadcasters and film crews. There is a cooperative called Ricol which, when the London courts were privatised, brought together all the interpreters to set up in competition to established conglomerates such as Serco. These are small scale examples which need a great deal of emulation—and inspiration is available overseas. The Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, the Freelancers’ Union in the US and the Bread Funds in the Netherlands have all developed partnerships between cooperatives, mutuals and trade unions to provide traditional workers’ representation in a rapidly changing labour market.
There have been attempts, at the moment scattered and yet to be coordinated, to unionise temporary and brief workers in companies that have not been especially hospitable to the attempt. The Pret a Manger staff union was created in 2012. The Starbucks Workers’ Union is an attempt to bring together baristas across the US. These need not be forlorn, defensive moves. Although consolidation of trade unions in the UK has produced giant, non-specific unions such as Unite and the GMB, there are plenty of single-company trade unions that remain affiliates to the Trades Union Congress. Accord is the union for all the employees of the Lloyds Banking Group, Advance does the same work at Santander, as does the NGSU at Nationwide and the BSU at Britannia.
There may, of course, be more safety in the numbers of allied trades. Rather than join USDAW, the established retail union, it would be intriguing if the emergent companies of the retail sectors were to come together to create their own, rival unions. There are, again, many exemplars in the current affiliates to the TUC of bodies that represent trades rather than workplaces. The Association of Flight Attendants does a fine job for a profession that is scattered to all parts of the globe. The British Dieticians’ Association and the National Association of Stable Staff, rather improbably, do the same for their members.
There remains the problem that trade unionism is not penetrating into the expanding parts of the British economy. The economy has become more weightless, but trade unionism remains essentially heavy. The union Prospect reaches into some of the invisible forms of engineering, energy and telecommunications but, even there, the unionised sectors tend to be of a traditional stamp. Perhaps the best example of reach into the new economy is the well-established Writers’ Guild of Great Britain which goes some way to bringing worker representation to the expanding online world, videogames and creative content of all sorts.
The best example of an insurgent union so far is Digital Union, a network of creative industries across the northeast of England. Digital Union represents video games companies, mobile app and software developers, animation studios, graphic designers, augmented and virtual reality specialists, web designers and brand agencies. It does the work of a trade union in a looser way, among a network of creative employees whom it helps to bind into a community. It is not a fond hope to suppose that this could be a model for the trade unionism of the future, to meet a world in which people will change their employer eight or nine times in a working life.
These are straws in the wind, for the time being, but this is an existential moment for trade unionism. Paraphrasing a line he knew from George Bernard Shaw’s play The Apple Cart, Aneurin Bevan once said that “the person in this country who is in the most strongly entrenched position, next to the King, is the trade union official.” Even as the position of the unions have weakened, the leadership has continued to act as if that were true. Wasting its time on political operations while membership has collapsed, union members have been poorly served by their leadership. There are 12m people in Britain who say they are unhappy with some aspect of their work. The need for collective representation remains.
So does the kind of trade unionism which was the inspiration of the founding fathers. In 1985 Bill Sirs, General Secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, wrote the following words that describe trade unionism at its best and which ring out even more loudly today: “The way which we care for our sick and elderly workers, our pensioners, the way which we support our communities, welfare centres, social clubs and all sorts of facilities for young people; the way in which we help to run our town councils, sit on the bench of the nation’s magistrates’ courts and play a part in the cultural, artistic and religious life of the nation… Yet this is not the image the public has of a trade unionist. They see only the bawling, yelling, sloganising ranter, the work-shy, idle card-playing shop floor worker or striker.”
The slow retreat of trade union membership into the public sector is the antithesis of the origins of the movement. Trade unions are still the largest voluntary associations in the land. They are the inheritance of a radical liberal impulse to empower the individual against the encroachment of the state. In any civilised economy their role should be central but it will require upsetting the apple cart before that will be possible.