Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/611/8822
Trade unions in Britain - are they ready for the coming battles?
Recently, chancellor Alistair Darling said that halving the government's deficit in four years was 'non-negotiable'.
He claimed that health, education, police and overseas aid budgets will not be affected by his cuts.
But the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that in real terms there will be cuts of 16% for all other departments. If the Tories win the general election their cuts could be worse and deeper.
The trade unions remain the best way of organising resistance to these cuts but Socialist Party industrial organiser Bill Mullins looks at the unions today and asks the question - will they?
Newly released figures on employment reveal that many full time workers are being forced into part time work. This is with a cut in wages of course, to suit the requirements of the employers.
The number in full time work fell by 113,000 in the three months up to the end of November 2009, while the number in part time work grew by 99,000. These were mainly women workers.
Many bosses choose to cut workers' hours, rather than get rid of them altogether, so they do not have to train new workers when the economy picks up again.
Workers are also under attack on numerous other fronts, including on their level of pay, pension and their terms and conditions. Whoever wins the election, all the establishment parties are of one mind when it comes to making working people pay for the crisis.
So far, in answer to these attacks, the union leaderships, with a few exceptions, have been abysmal. The leadership of the biggest public sector union, Unison, with 1.3 million members, has spent far more effort in attacking the left in general and the Socialist Party in particular than it ever has in defending its members' jobs and wages.
The close link between Unison's tops and the Labour government has meant that those leaders will do their utmost not to embarrass the Labour leaders, especially in the run up to the general election.
Their record of capitulation goes back a long way. For instance, they failed to defend the pensions of local government workers in 2006/7. This was when, led by the PCS, other public sector unions were at least able to protect present pension rights for existing members, including civil servants and teachers.
Like all bureaucracies that seek to protect their own interests, as the government's attacks against their members intensify, Unison's leaders seek to close down all opposition groups who are fighting for the union to adopt a fighting programme against these attacks. That is why the battle to defend jobs and conditions is increasingly tied to a battle to defend democratic rights and a fight to reclaim the union from the hands of the unelected full time officialdom.
Despite all the obstacles thrown in their path, important sections of workers in Britain have demonstrated that when their backs are against the wall they will fight back.
These have included the Visteon car part workers in London, Basildon and Belfast, the Vestas wind turbine workers on the Isle of Wight, the Prisme workers in Dundee, and the Swansea Linamar workers in defeating their bosses' attempt to sack Socialist Party member and works convenor Rob Williams.
The above disputes featured the occupation of factories and were an instinctive reaction to the dictatorial actions of the employers.
The few minutes' notice given to the Visteon workers to leave their factories was first met with a stunned resignation by the workers in Enfield and Basildon. But when the workers heard about the occupation in the Belfast factory, they followed its lead and occupied themselves.
This demonstrated that despite all the capitalist property laws they were not going to accept being treated that way.
The issue of occupation could feature heavily in the future, as it does now in the workers' struggles in France.
The bald figures for workers' struggle are contained within the report issued by the government's Office of National Statistics giving "days lost" in strike action.
These figures do not tell the whole story. For example they do not include the Visteon workers' occupation because the workers had been sacked and therefore could not be counted as workers striking against their employer!
Royal Mail workers who were on official strike regularly throughout the latter part of 2009, particularly in London, were also involved in unofficial action as a result of the after effects of the official dispute. Their unofficial action is probably not included in the official figures.
There were 370,000 days lost in strikes in the first 10 months of 2009 (January-October inclusive) compared to 759,000 for the whole 12 months of 2008.
This gives the impression that the curve of strike action was downward. But by the end of 2009 the figures were creeping upwards.
In 2008, the number of days lost in strikes in the public sector was 711,000 out of the total of 759,000. Most of this was down to the two-day strike of local council workers on the issue of pay.
In October 2009 alone, the postal workers' strike accounted for 199,000 days lost. The interim agreement that ended the postal strikes could be described as a draw, but the employers were forced to retreat on a number of fronts. It remains to be seen if this 'peace' continues into 2010.
The National Union of Teachers (NUT), with a left leadership, including recently elected deputy general secretary Kevin Courtney, have the best chance in years to resist the attacks on teachers which have tremendously increased teachers' workloads.
Already in 2010 there have been important developments, with some skilled workers taking action to defend jobs. These include workers at Fujitsu, who have never organised a national strike before but have been spurred into action by threatened job and other cuts. These workers have been encouraged to strike by the company posting record profits. Other workers with no particular track record of militancy could similarly move into struggle against the bosses' attacks.
Trade union density
An important issue regarding perspectives for the unions is trade union density. Are the unions making inroads into the huge number of workers who are not in a union but have indicated a desire to join one if given the chance?
30 years ago, unions in Britain encompassed a majority of those at work, reaching a membership of 13 million, 12.7 million of whom were in unions affiliated to the TUC. In manufacturing (engineering, the car industry etc) over 90% were in unions.
There were 250,000 shop stewards, mainly in manufacturing industry, who by organising militant industrial action at shop floor level, led the public sector to emulate them.
NUPE, which organised council manual workers and health workers, grew from 60,000 in the 1960s to over 600,000 by the end of the 1970s. NUPE later went on to become a part of Unison.
Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher deliberately set out to destroy the power of the unions by, amongst other things, introducing a deliberate policy of de-industrialisation. This saw the closure of whole swathes of industry and thereby undermined part of the base of militant trade unionism and the shop stewards' movement.
This, coupled with the anti-trade union laws, was aimed at fatally wounding trade union organisation. She was not wholly able to do this because trade unionism is deeply embedded in the psyche of workers in Britain, with over 150 years of tradition behind it. But trade union membership has been halved over the last 25-30 years.
Another contributory factor to this decline was the general move to the right by the trade union leaders following the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and eastern Europe and the accompanying capitalist ideological onslaught.
But there is a 'trade union premium' - the difference between the wages of those in a union and those who are not. Average hourly earnings of trade union members in 2008 were £13.07 whilst non-trade union workers received £11.62 per hour. A union premium of 12.5%. And there are many other issues besides pay, where workers can benefit from being in a union.
How does UK trade union membership compare with other parts of the world? Internationally it is highest in Scandinavia at 70%+ of the workforce, whilst in France it only stands at 7.8%. Yet the French capitalists faced around 8,000 strikes last year whilst the Swedish capitalists faced just a handful.
In Sweden the unions have for decades been heavily involved in the administration of the national insurance system which every worker has to be part of. This has enabled the unions to keep their membership at a high level.
Despite their lower trade union density, French workers, with their militant history, tend to take to the streets when they feel action is required. But generally it still requires the French unions at a national level to give a lead, whether or not the workers are in a union.
There is a higher degree of struggle at present in France, but the weakness of the trade union leadership has meant that the French government has still attacked the interests of working people. For example, the 35 hour week has seen major attacks upon it by the government, urged on by the whole of the capitalist class. The union leaders' authority is being used to hold back the struggle, though they are sometimes forced to respond to the anger of the workers by organising action.
Across the world and in Britain, the unions remain the most important means through which working people defend their interests against the onslaught on jobs and conditions at work. But to become more effective organisations they will have to adopt fighting policies and programmes and develop the necessary leadership.
Much of the existing leadership is incapable of giving a lead without massive pressure from below. This pressure has to be organised and one way of doing this is by means of building broad left organisations within the unions.
Broad lefts have existed in Britain in a number of unions to draw together activists in an organised form, who want a more militant fighting programme for the union.
The Socialist Party and its predecessor the Militant have played a major role in developing these organisations in various unions from the civil service union CPSA, now the PCS, to the postal and telecom unions.
PCS, and before it the CPSA, developed a healthy broad left. After years of struggle the right wing was defeated and a broad left leadership, along with others who opposed the undemocratic methods of the old right wing leadership, won power and a big majority on the union's national executive.
Civil service workers and the PCS probably face their most severe test yet, as the part of the public sector facing the biggest cuts from a New Labour or a Tory government .
The old PCS right wing would long ago have capitulated to the government. They would have acted as policemen to root out opposition to the government's plans inside their union, much as the right wing in Unison are doing now.
In Unison the witch-hunt against Socialist Party members and other socialists has led to the coming together of some of the left on the basis of a "reclaim the union" type organisation whose development is in its early stages. The forthcoming Unison snap general secretary election, foisted on the membership by a leadership keen to get it out of the way prior to the general election, will give a means to further develop the left. But this is only on condition that the left outside the Socialist Party is prepared to face up to how much the rank and file membership hate the link between the union and the Labour Party.
The Socialist Party has made gains as a result of calling for the link with the Labour Party to be broken, whereas the rest of the left have lost out, as a direct result of their ideological confusion.
In other unions there is also a chance of the development of either new broad lefts or a revival of the existing broad lefts. For the union Unite to develop a healthy broad left, it will also have to clarify its position on the link with Labour.
There is no one way of winning workers over to a fighting programme. Rank and file bodies such as the National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) could take initiatives to give a lead to those in struggle. But whatever happens the Socialist Party and its supporters in the unions will be in the forefront of these struggles.
Young people and the trade unions today
Amongst 16-24 year olds in the UK, only 5.1% of those in work are in a trade union. So the unions' orientation to young people is an important question.
PCS is in the process of developing a new young members' network with its own internal life and democratic methods. But other unions are still a long way from developing similar organisations.
One of the key lessons of the past has been that workers will join the unions if they see that they are fighting organisations. That is why the rail union RMT has seen a big increase in its membership, whilst many other unions have declined in membership. The PCS has maintained its membership despite a massive decline in jobs in the civil service under successive governments.
It is vital that campaigns like Youth Fight for Jobs are discussed and supported throughout the whole trade union movement. Orientating to young people and showing them that the unions will fight for their interests will build trade union membership.
Changes in trade union membership
According to the government's business department, trade union membership in 2008 fell by 0.6% to 27.4% of the working population or around 6.9 million workers. It was 28% in 2007.
The private sector, in a reversal of the past, continues to be the hardest to organise. It saw a fall in trade union organisation of 0.6%, to 15.5% of those in work. In the public sector, reflecting the continuation of privatisation and job cuts, especially in the civil service and local government, trade union membership was down by 1.9% to 57.1% of all those in that sector in Britain. In Wales, union membership stood at 37.4%, in Scotland 32.9% and in England 26.1%.
But within England there were also some important variations. For example, in the north east, 35.3% of all those in work were union members whilst in the south east only 21.5% of all workers were in a union, although this is up 0.5% since 2007.
A number of reasons exist for the fall in union membership in some parts of the economy. The privatisation of utilities like gas, electricity and water has seen union membership go down by 14.6% since 1998. But in other parts it went up, such as in education where it went up slightly from 53.1% to 54.1%, as workers there have turned to the unions for protection.
The same data shows that one third of all workers have wages and conditions negotiated, often at national level, by the trade unions even if not all those workers are in a union.
Collective agreements cover 20% of those in the private sector, which has 15.5% of the workforce in a union. Over 70% of workers in the public sector are covered by collective agreements, whilst trade union density stands at 57.1%.
In The Socialist 10 February 2010:
Unison general secretary election
Socialist Party news and analysis
Socialist Party workplace news
Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition
PCS young members
Socialist Party feature
International socialist news and analysis
War and occupation