News that rail unions, RMT and TSSA, who between them have about 110000 members are starting talks about a possible future merger is very interesting, and any such move might also drag in the 18000 strong craft union, ASLEF, to create a powerful new transport union.
The history of the trade union movement has always featured a process of amalgamations, but whether they are a good or bad thing depends upon the detail, and the context.
GMB overwhelmingly decided to opt out of the merger talks between AMICUS and TGWU that eventually led to the formation of UNITE. Experience has shown that the rapid process of mergers that created AMICUS was already relatively unstable, and merger with TGWU led to a huge but sometimes directionless union that has often been less than the sum of its parts. Len McCluskey has made a good start in turning that around, but has a mammoth job to make UNITE punch its weight.
UNISON has been a more successful merger, despite the oddity of the union sometimes feeling like NALGO’s lay members run by NUPE’s officers. However, it is an overwhelmingly public sector union, which has its drawbacks, as UNISON can seem overexposed to the risk of government cut backs, and also UNISON has to work hard to avoid the trap of its campaigns seeming like special pleading for public sector workers.
The most obvious outstanding case for mergers would be the teaching unions. Uniting NUT and NASUWT would make a union of 700000 members, and if ATL could be brought in, this would be over 900000 strong. This would be a hugely powerful voice for education.
But there are some other possible mergers that would be of huge mutual benefit. For example GMB and USDAW would be a brilliant fit. As both unions organise in the retail sector already, both are committed to an organising rather than servicing model, and both have an internal culture where relatively low paid manual workers feel comfortable. What is more, while USDAW has seen solid growth in recent years, it is arguably overexposed to risk in its relationship with TESCO, and its bargaining position would be improved by being part of a bigger union with eggs spread across more baskets.