Unions' influence surges as membership makes comeback

TUC: Optimism surrounds start of annual gathering in Glasgow today
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Indy Politics

The great slumbering giants are stirring. Unfashionable it may be, but the trade union movement, which starts its annual meeting today in Glasgow, is experiencing a comeback.

The great slumbering giants are stirring. Unfashionable it may be, but the trade union movement, which starts its annual meeting today in Glasgow, is experiencing a comeback.

For the first time since Margaret (now Baroness) Thatcher came to power in 1979, membership of unions is growing, and they are are influencing government policy - although the New Labour spin-doctors are not prepared for everyone to know that.

The latest Labour Force Survey shows that total union membership grew by more than 100,000 between 1998 and 1999 and is now nearly 7.3 million. The upward trend is continuing, said the official certification officer, Whitehall's union watchdog.

But the movement has not fully emerged from the nuclear winter visited on it by Lady Thatcher. While more people belong to unions and staff associations, the big manufacturing unions of the Trades Union Congress are still in decline, largely due to redundancies in smoke-stack industries.

Delegates gathering for the TUC conference clearly felt that the dark days of the Eighties were over. John Monks, its moderate general secretary, said that the environment for unions was at its best for 30 years. Membership among men has increased by 40,000 - the first time that has happened since the Labour Force Survey began in 1989. The number of female trade unionists rose by 30,000, after a 60,000 rise in 1998.

Yet the figure for union density - the proportion of employees who belong - is holding steady rather than rising. Around one-third of full-time employees are members. Most worrying for the TUC is that density is linked to age. Nearly two out of five employees in their forties are members compared with one in five 20-year-olds. Many young people are either ignorant or dismissive of the perceived benefits of unionism.

There is still a marked regional divide. Two in five workers in Wales and the North-east of England are union members compared with just over one out of five in the South-east. Density in manufacturing fell from 30 per cent to 28 per cent as job losses took their toll.

The average the blue-collar worker of the unions' Seventies heyday. A greater proportion of white-collar employees than manual workers belong - 30 per cent compared with 29 per cent. The highest union density is among professionals, of whom nearly half are members.

More traditional organisations are seeing better days too. Membership of Ucatt, the construction workers union, the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, and the shopworkers' association, Usdaw, are all rising. Teachers' unions are attracting more members, partly as a consequence of the unpopularity of government reforms. And the TUC's organising academy, a group of young trade unionists dedicated to recruitment, attracted 18,000 new members last year.

Mr Monks believes more will come. New laws on recognition give unions the opportunity to win bargaining rights where most employees want them. Some are already winning recruits because of the legislation. DLA, a city law firm, calculates that 265 new recognition deals have been signed in the past 12 months.

The movement's big battalions now have influence not seen for two decades. Ministers are no longer bullied by union barons over beer and sandwiches, but they do talk regularly over coffee and biscuits.

The Prime Minister agreed last week to turn his ad hoc meetings with employees' leaders into more formal quarterly sessions at which they will have his ear. Unionists could only dream of such contact under the Conservatives.

Evidence that ministers respond to union submissions came when they indicated recently that they would be prepared to guarantee a minimum state pension of £100 per week. Workers' leaders had privately urged the Government to restore the link between pensions and average earnings.

The Government has two good reasons for wanting to keep unions on side. They command half the votes at Labour's policy-making conferences and they provide the lion's share of party funds, which Tony Blair will need to win the next election.