British unions are incapable of adapting themselves to today's workplacesby Tony Cooper / September 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2003 issue of Prospect Magazine
Since the second world war the trade unions in Britain have damaged or destroyed three Labour governments, but only one Tory government. They didn’t leave a mark on the Thatcher hegemony, which they precipitated in the first place and which left their world altered forever. Union leadership throughout was tactical and defensive. It remains so today.
Union membership as a proportion of the workforce rose initially in the 1970s, when union power seemed irresistible, but has steadily fallen for the last 25 years. TUC-affiliated membership has recently appeared to stabilise, although that is due more to the affiliation of hitherto unaffiliated unions than real recruitment, despite a ten-year growth in the workforce, six years of a union-friendly government and a raft of pro-union legislation.
Instead of exploiting the fruits of that friendship, a large part of the movement-led by Bob Crow, Mark Serwotka and others-has concentrated on what it believes to be its unrestored rights. Labour leaders are denounced as the real enemy despite a surge in employment and pay in the unions’ public sector heartlands. In the name of solidarity, the rest of the movement has again stayed silent or grudgingly supportive in the face of politically motivated and inept action, most obviously in the case of the Fire Brigades Union. Thoughtful union leaders now glumly anticipate further collateral damage in the shape of renewed membership loss and perhaps even renewed legislative attack.
This is all common knowledge. The full extent of the fall in union membership is not. The TUC claims affiliations of around 7m. Even this is only about 25 per cent of the record 28m workforce. But TUC rules force unions to affiliate their retired and unemployed members also. Moreover, all unions add new members to their list on receipt of an application form, but delete leavers months after they stop paying. In reality there are probably no more than 5.5m working members of TUC-affiliated unions, which represents 19.6 per cent of the workforce.
That is not all. The membership which does remain is highly concentrated. Public sector membership of TUC unions has declined to about 60 per cent. Reliable data is not available on private sector membership, but it is probably no more than 7 per cent-and that is concentrated in the declining areas of recent privatisations, surviving manufacturing industries and the residual “clerical factories” of banking, finance and insurance.
Declining union membership is a worldwide phenomenon. Membership in Britain, however, has fallen so precipitously that only two countries in the developed world now have a lower overall rate: France and the US. But these two countries are special cases. In France only 9 per cent of workers are unionised, but it doesn’t matter (see “France Profonde,” page 40). Generous funding comes from the state or employer. People do not need to be in a union to finance it, benefit from it or support it, so they do not join. Formal membership is confined to activists. In the US, union membership is banned in large parts of just that white collar and public sector employment which has become crucial to union membership in Britain. When this is taken into account, membership may now be lower in Britain than the US.
Yet demand for core union services remains high. Both Acas and the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux report around 700,000 cases brought to them each year. Surveys of attitudes to unions show that most people don’t seem very concerned by union political activities or even militancy so long as such activities are a measured element in the defence of members’ interests. Sympathy for unions in dispute remains strong, too.
There are plenty of excuses for union failure: the welfare state, created by union pressure, has replaced many of the services unions once provided; a decline in the significance of craft preservation has removed one reason for union relevance; there has been 25 years of anti-union rhetoric, even if unions brought much of it upon themselves; contracting out, and the shrinking size of the average workplace, have limited the scope for large-scale collective bargaining except in the public sector; society appears to have rejected old collective values.
But these are excuses. In so far as they reflect real changes, they are facts to adjust to rather than alibis for failure. People are not antagonistic to unions; they simply think that they are old fashioned and irrelevant. And many who have experience of unions regard them as amateur and divorced from the reality of their own work experience. Someone who has paid ?120 a year in union dues for 20 years is pretty disenchanted to find his or her personal case dealt with by a colleague down the corridor, rather than an appropriate professional.
If people are asked what they would like from a union in order of importance, they say: factual information, not propaganda; personal support in adversity at work; influence with their employer; collective bargaining; influence with government. Activists and officials, when asked, tend to have the reverse order of priorities. General secretaries deal with government and the most junior officials deal with personal cases, virtually unsupervised.
Unions do not and should not operate commercially, but a comparison with the way a commercial “union market” might function does help to identify and understand their failings. Differentiation into niches to reflect diversity of demand, customer identity or marketing strategy is a feature of any mature market. Yet in recent years giant union mergers have led to niche destruction. In the real world, people still define their working identity through a combination of factors such as their craft, profession, qualification, skill, salary, status, company or industry. Aware of this, the merged unions attempt to cater for niche identities with a plethora of specialist committees. These do little to meet members’ sense of identity, and are bureaucratic and expensive. In any case, most members do not understand the mechanisms that are supposed to give them a voice in the union. This is exacerbated by the ritualistic formality of most union conferences. Such ritual is, however, the delight of activists for whom manipulation of debates-usually on current political issues-is a measure of their legitimacy.
Few union officials have any idea how to manage an organisation with a turnover often of many millions. Senior officials are selected or elected for their demagogic or negotiating skills, not their managerial abilities. In virtually all unions the key individual representational activity is subject to maximum delegation with little supervision or appraisal. Lay members whose proper role is defining policy, collective bargaining and communicating with members often endeavour to manage the union, while full-time officials who should be managing the union are frequently heavily involved in policy and democratic activities proper to elected lay officers.
Such a focus on politics and collective bargaining has been particularly damaging during a period of transition to employment in small companies. With fewer than 50 staff a company is unlikely to be an appropriate subject for collective bargaining, but it may well have insufficient expertise to avoid difficult individual disputes. A potential member interested only in personal support will, however, have to contribute to an infrastructure designed mainly to support collective bargaining in large organisations.
Unions have recognised the need to sell themselves, but the earlier culture of the closed shop persists. The implicit message is that union values and objectives are “givens.” Those givens derive from several sources: the culture of defence of current jobs was bequeathed by lingering traditions of the craft guilds, reinforced by the brutality of the early industrial revolution; from Chartism came the commitment to democratic participation; from the various strands of socialism, the belief in the redistribution of wealth from capital to labour. For much of their history, unions successfully balanced these essentially altruistic but often contradictory strands with the self-interested demands of their members. To the direct support of individuals in trouble, they added the tools of political activism, welfare provision and collective bargaining.
There is nothing wrong with these tools, and the problems they were developed to address retain their importance for a civilised society despite a huge increase in individual and collective wealth. People are still bullied, discriminated against and injured at work. And the complexity of much labour regulation, especially when it originates in the EU, demands an ever greater professionalism among representatives. European social legislation is not designed with the common law in mind. Together with the introduction of “no win, no fee” costs this has led-in Britain-to a rapid expansion in litigation, as new laws are implemented through judicial interpretation, rather than administratively as in most of Europe. Without an intermediary union role, there is a very real danger of relatively trivial complaints creating a substantial financial burden and bureaucracy, especially on small employers. Britain could end up with the worst of two legal worlds: the inflexibility of continental Europe and the litigiousness of the US. It is also only a matter of time before unions themselves routinely face legal action from badly advised members.
Almost incidentally, unions have developed another significant function. Representative bodies of many kinds have established themselves as intermediaries between governed and government. In many countries unions are the largest such bodies. However imperfect, their democratic procedures are an improvement on those of virtually all other bodies, especially the powerful environmental organisations. They are not single-issue creations and they have a genuinely progressive and altruistic culture. Not surprisingly, unions have become major obstacles to despotism.
Even in comfortable, democratic Europe, this intermediary role remains important. Unions also have a role to play in stemming the growth of earnings inequality in the workplace. The minimum wage and a government commitment to high employment are tributes to union political activity. But these achievements will be impossible to repeat if unions remain little more than a collective voice on behalf of public sector producer interests. (This also creates insoluble tensions with the Labour party when it is in government-tensions which in the past have spilled over into high-profile disputes. The unions have tended to win such disputes, thereby helping to remove Labour from power. New Labour has learned that lesson, though the unions seem to have forgotten it.)
It is a scandal that during my whole working life as a union official, unions have changed so little. It is time that unions ceased to focus so much on collective bargaining, which diverts attention from the less high-profile but more important activities of personal support and legislative reform and is, in any case, irrelevant to the small-scale workplaces which are growing so fast.
If unions cannot maintain a mass membership, they lose the legitimacy to demand policy favours from a Labour, or any other, government. Unless unions reform fundamentally, become more responsive to their members and more professional in their service delivery, they will not rebuild a mass membership and will decline into final lingering irrelevance.