Political Commentary: Trade unions can weather the chill

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The Independent Online
ON THE face of it, John Monks, who next week takes over as the seventh Trades Union Congress general secretary since the war, could not be doing so at a more inauspicious time. His election (unopposed) has been a quiet affair and the Congress that will anoint him in Brighton next week will, by and large, be reported as little more than a warm-up for the political conference season - an unthinkably modest role even as recently as the mid-1980s.

Trade unions now face the coldest of winters; the latest of the seven Conservative trade union Acts since 1979, by requiring union members to give regular written agreement to having their subscriptions 'checked off' (deducted) from pay by employers, spells a devastating shock to the unions who will have to 're-recruit' 6 million of their 8.5 million members. The first signs are that, offered an explicit opportunity to contract out of membership, perhaps as many as 40 per cent will do so.

The British trade union movement has weathered recession better than some of its counterparts in the Western industrialised world; the decline from 13.3 million members in 1979 can partly be explained by the decline in manufacturing industry. And around one in three workers remains in unions, which is equivalent to the historic high point of union membership in the United States. Now this record is threatened.

Moreover, since the 1992 general election, those unions affiliated to the Labour Party have apparently fallen out with their natural political allies. The Labour modernisers, who want to limit union control over policy-making and selection of MPs, are easily depicted by their opponents as anti- union. It isn't true. Most of those arguing for loosening the links believe as passionately as their opponents that free trade unionism is a symbol of a free society. But it inevitably adds to the feeling of friendlessness with which the unions face a bleak and uncertain future. In fact the only certainty seems to be that Labour will not repeal most of the union curbs which constitute one of Margaret Thatcher's greatest legacies.

Mr Monks will be the first TUC leader to operate in a wholly post-corporate age. In a forthcoming book, The Trade Union Question in British Politics (Blackwell), Robert Taylor, the political historian and labour correspondent of the Financial Times, describes the unions' emergence from the war years as an estate of the realm, whose leaders dealt with politicians of the main parties as equals, up to the dismantling of that estate by Mrs Thatcher. It is an absorbing story; not least because of the sea change within the Conservative Party during the period. The Tories came to power in 1951 committed to a policy drafted by R A Butler which assumed, and welcomed, the centrality of unions in industry and in political life; Taylor describes how a succession of Tory ministers of labour, from Walter Monckton on, saw themselves almost as neutrals in relations between employers and unions. It is a truism that the unions have now been banished from Whitehall by the successors of Butler and Monckton. But does that spell the death of the unions?

It is just possible, against the unpromising background, to construct an 'early Christian' model of future trade unionism. Deprived of crutches such as the closed shop and check- off, without any of the rights to recognition enjoyed in the 1970s, collectives would form clandestinely as they did in the early days of the combinations. Certainly, some Tory legislation may have unpredictable consequences - particularly in the rare cases where workers' bargaining muscle is increased by scarcity of labour. For example, because trade union officials have again to argue the case for union membership, they may expose and harness a higher level of grievance and union consciousness than employers have had to live with through most of the 1980s.

It may be fanciful to imagine the rebirth of militancy in the new era. But it is not true that, without the politicial influence or industrial muscle that they enjoyed between 1945 and 1979, the unions have also lost all purpose. A recent Fabian pamphlet by Philip Basset and Alan Cave shows that the key reason for joining a union - cited by 72 per cent of respondents - is advice on discipline, with legal assistance (70.5 per cent) and advice on grievances (63.5) following close behind. Collective bargaining trails at fourth place.

Remarkably, the biggest single reason for not joining a union, cited by 28.4 per cent of respondents, is 'Labour Party support'. There are two lessons in this: one is that the unions' perceived links with the Labour Party may be as damaging to them as to the party. And the other is the poverty of appeals to traditional class solidarity. As the pamphlet puts it: 'The reasons given for joining a union are wholly instrumental - what the union can do for me.'

This is not new. First, it was always absurd to imagine that workers joined unions to strike for better pay. In 12 years as a labour correspondent, I can remember only one incontestably successful strike - that of the firemen in 1977-78. (It was such an event that the then Fire Brigades' Union general secretary, Terry Parry, celebrated by buying a greyhound and naming it 'Upper quartile', after the level of manual earnings at which the settlement fixed his members' pay.) Second, as long ago as the 1960s, research among manual car workers in Luton, quoted by Taylor, showed that they joined unions for the same reasons of self-interest cited in the Fabian pamphlet.

George Woodcock, a TUC general secretary who thought deeply about these issues, was always uneasy about the TUC's political relationship with the Labour Party. He was reluctant to allow Harold Wilson to launch his 1964 campaign at the Congress; he even hankered to see unions such as the Police Federation inside the TUC. Famously, he asked the 1960 Congress: 'What are we here for?'

It is not as if that question doesn't still have an answer; or that there are no grievances to right. A chilling report by the Citizens' Advice Bureau last March summarised the insecurity of working life in the new Britain. It told, with graphic case histories, how employers evaded their legal obligations to provide written contracts of employment; and how employers increasingly dismiss workers just before the two-year period that qualifies them for legal protection against unfair dismissal (then attempt to rehire them after a short break).

Can the unions, forced on to the defensive after an era in which the state did much of their work for them, summon the willpower and energy to come to the rescue? Mr Monks, quiet, capable and articulate, is in the tradition of George Woodcock, and has thought seriously about all this. He is expected to make the 'insecure society' one of the central themes of his speech to Congress. That, at least, can scarcely fail to strike a chord.