A restyled package for the new wage-slaves: After 15 years in the cold, trade unions are marketing their services in a more favourable climate, says Barrie Clement

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The Independent Online
IN 1976 one of the last great romantics of British democratic socialism introduced a bank holiday in celebration of labour. Michael Foot, then Secretary of State for Employment, decided that one day in the year should be dedicated to those who toil for the capitalist machine by hand or by brain.

Today many of us will take our ease courtesy of Mr Foot. Despite attempts by the Government to shift the holiday to October and rename it Trafalgar Day or some such, David Hunt, an Employment Secretary of a more consensual political kidney than his Conservative predecessors, bowed to union and employers' protests in December and announced that May Day would stay.

Coincidentally, tomorrow is the 15th anniversary of the general election that swept Margaret Thatcher to power after a 'winter of discontent' involving a fifth of the working population in industrial action. Mrs Thatcher vowed to bring the unions to heel. Through a series of employment acts she ushered in an ice age for organised labour.

There are clear signs, however, that the industrial and political temperature for unions has dropped as low as it is likely to go. To use the argot of recession economics, the unions are probably bumping along the bottom.

Legislation introduced last August could have delivered the coup de grace to the movement. The Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act was aimed at the movement's financial jugular. Under one of its key provisions, employers will stop deducting union subscriptions from pay packets by August at the latest, unless they receive written permission from the individuals concerned. Two-thirds of all union members, 6 million employees, pay their dues through this 'check-off' system, so the movement was faced with the enormous task of, in effect, re-recruiting them.

Some unions have been less than successful. Following the unilateral abolition by British Rail of its check- off arrangement last July, the RMT union has lost 20,000 members. Yet the big battalions, such as the largest TUC affiliate, the public service union Unison, predicts that it will increase its membership. The Transport and General, the second largest, is confident it will make gains; the GMB claims an increase of more than 10,000 and the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union says that while some members have been lost, new recruits outnumber them. When all the figures have been compiled, total union membership may well have edged up a percentage or two. That, at the tail end of a recession, with fresh redundancies announced every day, is a creditable performance.

The Government's intention in this latest round of legislation was to ensure that workers did not remain union members through inertia; in practice, it may unwittingly have helped unions to rediscover their roots. Under the leadership of John Monks, the articulate new TUC general secretary, TUC affiliates have had to repackage and resell the whole idea of union membership.

This concerted campaign has coincided with two other shifts in public perceptions, both of which augur well for the unions. First, the recession put an end to the notion of the Eighties as the 'era of the consumer'; instead, there are signs that the Nineties may be seen as the 'era of the employee'. Second, in the Eighties opinion polls consistently showed that the electorate thought unions were too powerful. Now they report that people regard them generally as a good thing. Unions are waking up to the realisation that there is an untapped market - around two-thirds of the workforce - who may be favourably disposed towards them.

It is the task of union leaders to convert hypothetical approval into a signature on the dotted line. While growth in areas already unionised may be possible, what are the prospects for a colonisation of new businesses? The electronics sector, in particular, has proved notoriously difficult to organise.

Commentators have assumed that this failure has been in part because of sophisticated 'human resource development' structures. This 'HRD' approach - a non- union version of the old 'personnel' function - is supposed to render unions irrelevant by creating in- house communication and consultation processes.

Analysis by the independent Policy Studies Institute showed this to be so much toffee. Apart from Japanese electronics firms, rare was the company that adopted the full panoply of HRD, although many paid lip service to the idea.

Neil Millward, a senior fellow at the PSI and former head of the statistical section of the Department of Employment, made some even more controversial comments in his report. Businesses in general, but new ones in particular, he said, were creating the kind of master and servant relationships that gave rise to unions in the 19th century. A disenfranchised workforce in a reasonably sophisticated European economy would not be prepared to stay disenfranchised for long.

Such social forces can only be reinforced by economic recovery, as it shifts the balance of power between employer and employee. Unlike in the 19th century, of course, unions have an ally in the European Union. One certainty is that the top 100 British companies will be forced to set up works councils by 1996, and the unions are uniquely placed to gain representation on them.

Europe has also given British unions the possibility of using the more favourable EU employee laws as a strong selling point in their recruitment efforts. The recent House of Lords ruling on part-time workers is a case in point. The law lords ruled that part-time workers should have the same rights over dismissal and redundancy payments as full- timers. They judged British law to be infringing European law, which in this case took precedence.

The growing army of part-time workers has so far proved impervious to the union recruiters. But TUC affiliates are aware that they could now profit from a judicious campaign among part-timers, promising litigation if their new legal rights are not honoured - a significant and potentially expensive service for the price of one year's subscription (part-timers at a discount).

Acting as legal representative to individuals is not what most people would identify as the traditional role of trade unions, but it is characteristic of the modernised functions they are taking on. There is no certainty that there will be a return to widespread collective bargaining - 'Thatcher's children' are not among nature's collectivists. There is, however, an indestructible logic to the old argument that individuals are much weaker than collectives in the face of an unfair employer.