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The state of the unions today

crocadile tearsThere is no doubt that the election of a majority Conservative government in May was a considerable setback for working people. Under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party were proposing a number of positive reforms to employment law that would have improved rights at work, and tackled some of the more pernicious and exploitative aspects of the current labour market: where millions suffer from low pay, zero hour contracts, and bullying bosses.

The new Conservative government has made clear its intent to make it harder to organize lawful industrial action, to quote Professor Gregor Gall:

the Queen’s Speech in late May set out two new rules. The first requires at least half of eligible union members to vote so that a minimum turnout is established. The second is that in essential public services (health, education, fire and transport), there will also be the requirement that at least 40% of all those entitled to vote must vote for action (meaning that non-voters are treated as ‘no’ voters). These reforms (along with others on the repeal of the restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes; ensuring strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballot mandates ‘conducted years before’ and tackling alleged intimidation of non-striking workers) will be laid before Parliament as the Trade Union Bill later this year.

The response from the TUC was apocalyptic:

The TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady said these new laws would benefit the country’s “worst bosses” and that they would “make legal strikes close to impossible”, adding “union negotiators will be left with no more power than Oliver Twist when he asked for more.”

This was a strange and ill advised response from the General Secretary, and raises the question of how unions will recruit and retain members if they are seen as so ineffectual. Of course the proposed changes to the law need to be opposed and challenged, politically, legally and industrially, but unions will always adapt, survive and innovate to overcome obstacles.

Before we consider the current state of trade unions it is worth reflecting upon the fact that the proposed restrictions by Cameron’s government are still less restrictive than the Trades Disputes Act 1927, which was not repealed until 1946, and which made unlawful any strike whose purpose was to coerce the government of the day directly or indirectly, made incitement to participate in an unlawful strike a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to two years, banned mass picketing, banned civil service unions from affiliating to the TUC, or having any political objectives.

Nevertheless, while that draconian act was in force, trade union membership doubled, and broke into new industries which had been considered unorganisable, such as the new aircraft and car factories.long term trade union trends

British trade unions built their strength against far more unfavourable conditions than we have today, indeed we will shortly be celebrating the memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs, deported to Australia for organizing. A battle which the trade unions won.

It is necessary to acknowledge that for many groups of organized workers, meeting the proposed new ballot thresholds will be straightforward.

Where it will be a challenge will be those parts of the public sector where either membership density is insufficiently strong, or where workplace organisation is weak. We will need to give this careful consideration, and in particular strengthen organisation where we can.

It is reasonable to question, for example, the effectiveness of the PCS strategy of continued industrial action against the government on low ballot turnouts, that are poorly observed by the members, and which seem to have limited leverage.

Of course, while industrial action is the indispensible foundation upon which trade union strength is ultimately built, in the modern world, many companies have built substantial investment into the value of their brand, and are susceptible to bad publicity. The Carr report, commissioned by the coalition government to discuss the type of trade union campaigns which Unite have called “leverage” was very interesting.

In evidence to Carr, Pinsent Masons LLP described “leverage” as

“an umbrella term for any action (other than traditional forms of industrial action) by a trade union which aims to put pressure on an employer to settle a trade dispute or otherwise meet the union’s demands. Leverage tactics may be used in addition to or instead of traditional industrial action, and may be used for example before a trade dispute is officially declared. Leverage tactics typically seek to pressurise and commercially embarrass employers through targeted campaigns aimed at shareholders, customers and business partners, suppliers and the general public.

Employers regard such tactics with trepidation, as “extreme”. Again giving evidence to the Carr inquiry

The Engineering and Construction Industry Association (ECIA) offered the following description: “‘Leverage tactics’, which can also be ‘extreme tactics’, seek to extend the intimidation and disruption to those parties indirectly involved, such as shareholders, suppliers and customers; and seek publicity through the media to make public the discomfort they are causing – in attempts to embarrass and further intimidate.”

Industrial action is an important component of any trade union’s armory, but often it is necessary to look for other weaknesses to incentivize an employer to change their position.We need to understand that no particular form of action by a union is more virtuous than another. As Von Clauswitz observed, war is diplomacy by other means, but the meaning of that aphorism is the acknowledgement that every war results in a negotiated settlement, once the war itself has altered the various bargaining positions of the combatants.

Interestingly, the Carr Report discussed Unite’s campaigns but not GMB’s, and I think that this is partly attributable to the more media savvy approach of GMB, that taking a slightly humorous, or cheeky approach makes it harder for the employer to pose as an aggrieved victim.

For example, when AA was taken over by the asset stripping private equity boss, Damon Buffini, and GMB were derecognized in favour of a scab staff association, the current Southern Regional secretary Paul Maloney, responded by lobbying parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common on the asset stripping activities of Damon Buffini. They were accompanied by a live camel. This was to illustrate that biblical quotation about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven”. Buffini was associated with this church and was then estimated to be worth between £20/40 million.
The result was to push a complex story of private equity into a media friendly format, for example in the Daily Mail

the GMB purposefully chose to personalise the issue. The ins and outs of private equity finance are highly complex, but by directly linking the millionaires at the top with the newly-jobless at the bottom, it has managed to catch the public’s attention.

Paul Maloney is the GMB’s National Organiser for the AA and makes no bones about the campaign he has overseen: ‘Before we found out about Buffini, he was a hidden man. He’d just made thousands of people redundant but nobody knew about him. He was the spirit behind the evil, as it were. So we decided to make him the focus of our campaign.

The Carr report interestingly includes the views of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that for protests which are not pickets there is no distinction between protests associated with an industrial dispute, and protests which are not. It is therefore extremely challenging for the government to restrict protests by trade unions without curtailing those civil liberties consistent with the exercise of freedom of speech and association in a liberal democracy.

One of the achievements of the Paul Kenny era in the GMB, is the GMB@work strategy, which recognizes that there is a fundamental and ultimately irreconcilable conflict of interest between employers and employees, and therefore trade unions need to be always organized to conduct lawful industrial action, if necessary. Of course this does not preclude modern, professional and constructive relations between the union and employers to their mutual benefit of securing harmonious industrial relations, but this is a relationship of equals, and therefore the union needs teeth behind the smile.

As with any culture change, the implementation of GMB@work has not been uniform across the union, and indeed the relative rates of growth of different GMB regions allows a comparison of the effectiveness of GMB@work. It is in Southern Region where GMB@work has been embraced, which has involved standing up to tough employers, and often organizing low paid workers in precarious employment. GMB has shown that this can be done, for example we recently achieved recognition with an employment agency exploiting workers in the Marks and Spencer supply chain in Swindon.

Following continued membership growth in June, GMB Southern has now become the second largest region in the Union with 82,447 members. This follows a period of record growth where the region has increased its membership by 9837 members (Equivalent to 13.6%) since September 2012.

The growth in membership has followed a series of high profile campaigns within the Region, for example:
Leading the campaign against low wages and poor treatment of staff in Next
• Protesting against tax evasion and poor treatment of staff by Amazon and Starbucks
• Winning an 8.7% pay rise and full Agenda for Change Terms and conditions for caterers, cleaners and porters at Woolwich hospital
Leading the campaign and petition against Michel Gove’s planned teaching assistant cuts
Achieving the living wage for cleaning staff at the University of Arts London
Winning a campaign against redundancies & poor wages at an NHS contractor in Brighton. The Contract is now returning in house
Preventing the privatisation of London Fire Control centre in Merton
Seeing off cuts of £4000 a year to refuse workers wages in Brighton
Winning legal action to prevent wage cuts of up to £16,000 a year for care workers employed by Prospect housing in Surrey
Forcing the MOD to stick to their deal with Gurkha staff
Taking legal and industrial action to support staff employed at Swindon Hospital by blacklister Carillion

To quote Paul Maloney himself:

“The growth of 10,000 members since September 2012 is no accident and followed a process of dedicated organising by everybody within the region. This has been achieved solely by the efforts of members, activists and staff and shows that where we take on unscrupulous employers we will win and grow the union in the process.
This is good news for GMB, good news for the movement as a whole and shows that there is no need for any union to be managing decline. ”


  1. James Martin says:

    Ah, yet more lapdog slavering at the feet of the latest bureaucrat traitor to wear the ermine. Sad, I started to read the article in the belief that it would be a genuine analysis of the strength of the unions and the rank and file activists in the workplaces, and it ended up instead as an embarrassment – and I’m a GMB member!

    1. Andy Newman says:

      Well, the strength of unions is demonstrated by what they achieve for members, and therefore membership density, recruitment and retention.

      Of course membership figures have to be contxtualised, and USDAW’s impressive growth in recent years needs to be understood, for example, by its cozy relationship with TESCO, which in the long run may not be sustainable and compatible with its members’ interests.

      What you mean by the strength of the rank and file is not ckear, as there are a number of politically charged interpretations of that, but we all know that every union struggles with a reduced culture of trade union awareness and consciousness, and consequently reduced capacity in many wirkplaces.

      What is clear though is that politics which counterposes the rank and file to the official structures is hopelessly irrelevant to modern conditions.

      The most relevant debates concern the two issues i discuss, organising v servicing ( gmb@work being an organising approach based on building lay member capacity), the other issue being the use of “leverage” campaigns as an adjunct or alternative to industrial action.

      In these contexts, where fir exampke UNISON is managing decline, the phenomenal growth if GMB Southern needs to be considered, especially as this has been in often challenging curcumstances

      1. James Martin says:

        Yes, we get that this is an extended job application for a GMB full-timer role for you Andy. But please don’t try and claim that the GMB alone is an organising rather than servicing union, nearly all union’s claim that (a few even manage it, just), and besides it patently isn’t true. I can’t remember the last time I came across an actual GMB lay rep in a school, and in when I recently was putting together a joint union initiative and needed local lay-rep contact names I was told by the regional official to ‘just use me, we don’t really bother with having GMB reps in education’. No, for the most part in my experience the GMB is a top-down body dominated by officials that rarely scares anyone, let alone the bosses. No wonder they kept a seat warm for Kenny in the traitors retirement home.

        1. Andy Newman says:

          Agreed, GMB is not the only union committed to an organising agenda, but there are nevertheless unions that dont embrace that approach, so there is a debate to be had.

          My argument is that gmb@work has not been uniformly implemented, and where it has been done well, there has been success and membership growth.

          Yes it is challenging getting enough lay member reps, and the balkanisation of the education sector into acadamies has not helped. But where there are healthy branches, support from outside the workplace can still be from lay members.

          The question is not whether there is weakness or uneveness, but is there a dynsmic to overcome it. If you look at the tough industrial action taken by GMB – against for example Lewisham coincil, ISS or Brighton council in the last months, or our 21 days of strike against Carillion in 2012, then i can assure you that victories have been achieved, and employers see GMB as a handful

    2. gerry says:

      James – that’s a very negative critique you have of the GMB. My experience was pretty positive, as I was a member for some years whilst working as a security guard: the GMB@work strategy was great, and many other security guards joined because of it – and I was mostly working for the dreaded G4S at the time, that arch Thatcherite employer!

  2. David Pavett says:

    Thanks Andy Newman for an interesting and informative piece. There is is a need for more discussion of current TU strengths and weaknesses along these lines. The issue of “leverage” and the need to explore imaginative ways of gaining it is important if unions are to rebuild the membership base so badly depleted in recent decades. The action reported against Damon Buffini is an excellent example of novel forms if action.

    The lack of imagination of many TU activists often annoyed me in my many years of intense TU activity. They seemed to think that striking was a badge of honour and that exploring actions short of striking was some kind of betrayal of true militancy. They were also inclined to believe that a 50% + 1 return on a poorly organised ballot was a sufficient basis for successful strike action. It wasn’t and it isn’t. The strikes in which I was involved would never have been considered without a majority of those eligible to vote expressing their support.

    TUs, like the Labour Party are often blighted by narrow and conservative views and, also like the Labour Party, in their poor quality of information provided to members and an often startlingly low level of. membership involvement. The issue of poor quality information often extends to the general public. Quite often, when a dispute is in the news I turn to the website of the union concerned only to find that either there is no information or that what is given falls far short of what is needed.

    The assumption that TUs are currently, and even inherently, a force for more democratic and more left-wing politics in the Labour Party is one that could do with some careful examination.

    1. Andy Newman says:

      Thanks David.

      I agree with all that, though i do believe that unions both currently are and will remain a force for good in the party. This because unions rely upon building collective commumities of soludarity.

      I think that some of the less imaginative union left fetishise strikes for two reasons, one, that they believe that the process of participation in strikes transforms consciousness, which is partly true, but is contingent on a number of factors which may not be present, and secondly that “leverage” type campaigns require the lay members and official structures to work as a team, while far left activists may prefer to promote independence from the “bureaucracy”

    2. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      Another good and thoughtful response to a somewhat lame article, it’s proposed answer to the current decline of the UK Trade Union movement is apparently is and typically of New Labor thinking a bunch of vague and meaningless platitudes and babble about, “culture change,2 supported by a couple of rather lightweight examples.

      But much as labor and the unions are concerned to maintain otherwise, union now means essentially the public sector unions as a special interest group within the Labor party and little else. They haven’t had any relevance for me for decades and whilst I sympathize with plight of the teachers, council workers and social services etc constrained to only a 1% pay rise I should point out that in the private sector most companies have instituted a 10% pay cut and that minimum wage is now in most companies using untrained or unskilled labor, the standard wage.

      It’s different world for the fat cat union bosses on a salary and perks that few of their members could ever command, followed by a cozy retirement sinecure on some government or charity sponsored Quango or a seat on a tribunal or such like.

      These union people are become so completely establishment, so out of touch and so superfluous to the real needs and interests of anyone working, (or those not working,) it is increasingly difficult to understand what the point of them now is?

      1. Andy Newman says:

        You just bring your own prejudices, the fastest growing sector of GMB is commercial services: the private sector employers.

        Follow the links drscribing the campaigns, forcing ISS up from minimum wage to Agenda for Change pay rates by thrratening a 5 day strike was not a “*lightweight” example. Protracted action that stopped proposed pay cuts of up to £4k for bin workers in Brighton is not lighttweight.

        But companies are susceptible to not only industrial action. But also legal action and public and media campaigning

  3. swatantra says:

    Good article. The one thing I would take issue with is where you state that there is ‘a fundamentally irreconcilable difference between bosses and workforce … etc’ …. If we start with that kind of attitude then we ‘ve lost already and the whole industry is the biggest loser in any conflict situation.

    1. Andy Newman says:

      Well ultimately employers have a legal obligation to their share holders to maximise profits, and they therefore treat labour as a commidity .

      It is organised labour which seeks to redress the power imbalance between employers and individual employees and therefore push up the market price of labour.

      Clearly the relationship is predicated upon the business continuing to survive, which provides elements of common ground, and the process of industrial relations provides a mechanism for rekationships to be forged that can strengthen that common ground.

      But ultimately, trade unions do reflect the “them and us” reality of working life.

      The virtuous aspect of trade unionism is that the process of negotiating collectively also builds communities of solidarity which transcends the transactional nature of the wage labour relationship.

  4. James Martin says:

    The movement as a whole is interesting. Union member numbers and density as a whole have been stable for some time, but this masks that the highest figures are still concentrated in the public sector (education, civil service and local authorities). The experience in the private sector has been with some exceptions still poor (despite the TUC organising rather than servicing agenda that many unions have adopted).

    This is not a barrier to action as France shows. In fact France has a lower proportion of workers in a trade union than the US, and yet there is a tradition of militant street and workplace struggle that can ignite anyway and where the unions (still split along political and religious lines) try and play catch-up.

    My own take on some of the main unions (and not just GMB in the article) is this:

    Education Unions (UCU, NUT, NASUWT, ATL etc.): Still far to many of them, the last industriual area with unions split like this in the UK and yet membership density is the highest of any sector. UCU is in big trouble. Virtually bankrupt and a history of failed big actions has led to demoralisation as pay and conditions are (inc increased use of temp casualised contracts) under huge attack in uni’s and colleges. NUT and NASUWT have failed to stop Tory attacks and academisation in schools.

    Unite – still strong but is it too big? United Left remains confused between whether it is an electoral block or a rank and file body (in reality it is the former). The community branches to organise the sick and unemployed was a great idea but hasn’t worked.

    GMB – too top down, too dominated by full time officials who maintain a tight grip on just about everything.

    CWU – very much on the defensive now most of their members are now in the private sector. Remains to be seen what stategy their new GS adopts, but derecognition in Virgin Media is a terrible blow to their reputation and risks them being seen as a union that can’t organise anywhere outside Royal Mail.

    RMT – remarkable success and now a possible merger with the equally left wing led ASLEF would create a true syndicalist union in transport. The loss of Bob Crow was devastating (to all of us) but the odds are they will continue to hold their own (the recent ballots for the tube would have still been won under the latest Tory proposals on strike ballots).

    PCS – there are 100,000 less civil servants than when Cameron became PM in 2010 and we have the smallest civil service since 1945, so membership numbers (and income) have been hammered. But they have maintained density and have just about held their own under sustained attack. Mark Sewotka remains one of the most capable and likeable GS’s, more so now he is only kept going by a portable battery pack working his damaged heart. However finances are very poor and a renewed attempt to merge with Unite by the leadership (opposed by the activists last year) looks likely.

    USDAW – remain the most right-wing union, plenty of sweetheart deals have maintained membership particularly in the key distribution centres but the biggest fear of the leadership remains what would happen if their own members in those centres suddenly realise that they are the most powerful workers in the country.

    Unison: remains utterly useless after becoming Nalgo MkII and worrying more about left activist led branches than anything else. A sleeping giant, but will it ever wake up?

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