The unions and New Labour

Gavin Poynter

During the election campaign the Tories warned that Labour, if elected, would shed its new image and return to its old ways. A Labour government would restore the power of its paymasters, the trade unions, and Britain would be pitched back into the industrial climate of the 1970s when the labour movement regularly exercised its industrial and political muscle. No one listened. The trade unions were not an issue in the 1997 election campaign. Aspirant Labour embraced Branson and business. Trade union leaders offered the occasional soundbite or were silent. If the economy created mere ripples of debate then industrial relations rarely received a mention, except as an aside in discussions about Europe and the minimum wage.
Even in the wake of Labour's landslide victory, little attention has been paid to the future role of the trade unions under a Labour government. In this respect, the landslide of 1997 holds no comparisons to that of 1945. In the aftermath of the second world war, the power of the trade unions was reflected in their elevation to the status of a 'fifth estate'. In the wake of the 1997 election, the unions have assumed a more modest role. In 1945 the political influence exercised by union leaders was derived from the strength of their base on the shopfloor, by 1997 their political weakness is, arguably, a reflection of the marginalisation of trade unionism on today's rather different shopfloor. At the peak of their power, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, unions had a solid base in extractive and manufacturing industries and enjoyed rapid growth in public and private services. This peak coincided with the end of the 'golden age' of the post-war boom and brought with it attempts by successive governments to curb unions, either through legal reform, attempted by the Wilson and Heath governments, or through policies designed to co-opt the trade union leadership into accepting voluntary constraint. Wilson's In Place of Strife failed in 1969 following strong words from the unions. The Heath government succumbed to the miners' strikes of 1973-4 and the Social Contract was ripped apart by the Winter of Discontent in 1979.
The Conservative governments of the 1980s, aided by the return of mass unemployment, new laws that severely restricted the capacity of unions to organise industrial action, and a protracted period of industrial restructuring, succeeded where previous administrations had failed. The failure of the print workers' and miners' strikes in the mid-1980s marked the end of an era in post-war industrial relations. The defeats were followed by a decade of union decline. The figures provide telling evidence. In 1979 TUC membership stood at 12.2 million members. By 1996 this had fallen to 6.8 million. Over the same period the proportion of employees in unions fell from around 57 per cent to 32 per cent. The fall in union membership density was most marked amongst male manual workers in production industries and mining. By 1995, trade union membership density in manufacturing (32 per cent) and mining (36 per cent) had declined to levels lower than the financial services (37 per cent) and the public sector (health 48 per cent, education 56 per cent and public administration 59 per cent). These figures suggest that the future of trade unionism in Britain will be determined by its capacity for survival and renewal in what some have called the service economy.
The argument presented in this article is that the social and political influence of trade unionism depends primarily upon the strength of its roots in the workplace. Weak roots suggest 'hollow' institutions whilst the discovery of ‘new shoots' provides the potential for renewal. Currently, UK unions are in danger of becoming hollow institutions. The election of a Labour government does not provide a solution to this problem. Whilst the government may encourage employers to adopt a more conciliatory approach to unions, it has clearly signalled its intention of maintaining a firm political distance from them. This creates the possibility for unions to develop a critical, political role, independent of their traditional ties to Labour. As a precondition for achieving this, however, unions have to address the weakness of their workplace base.
The relative importance of service industries within the UK economy makes this sector a useful starting point for identifying the weaknesses of contemporary workplace unionism and evaluating its potential for renewal. This article divides into three parts. First, it draws upon some recent case study research to provide insights into the current state of workplace trade unionism.1 Second, the article outlines various renewal strategies considered by trade union leaderships in their attempts to tackle the problems illustrated by the case study research; and, finally, the prospects for these renewal strategies are explored in the wider political context provided by the electoral victory of new Labour.

The decline of workplace unionism
The picture of contemporary workplace unionism drawn here is based upon 25 case studies of enterprises and organisational units operating in the public sector, privatised utilities and financial services. The case studies covered workplaces employing 100,000 staff of whom approximately fifty per cent were union members. The research involved 175 interviews with key informants - senior managers, union full-time and lay officers and union members. Each case study was based upon interviews and documentation, including management and union publications and collective agreements. The results of the research may be grouped under four main themes: union/management relations; workforce and union; the role of union representatives; and unions and politics.
The weakening of workplace unionism was revealed by the transformation that had taken place in union/management relations in several of the institutions and enterprises covered by the research. There were four main trends. First, management interests and concerns tended to dominate the local consultative and negotiating agendas. Second, there was a movement towards the devolution of collective bargaining to the business unit and local workplace, with local negotiations assuming a less formal and more sporadic character. Third, employers, particularly in the financial services and privatised utilities, adopted human resource management techniques which tended to marginalise 'traditional' patterns of collective bargaining; and, finally, some groups of staff whose employment contracts had been recently changed were no longer covered by collective bargaining arrangements. There was, in short, a piecemeal process of derecognition occurring in several industries. Underpinning all these changes was a management approach that sought to 'individualise' the employment relation via the introduction of new pay and appraisal schemes and 'employee care' packages.
Whilst the research focused on institutions and enterprises in which trade unions had a history of recognition and organisation, there were significant numbers of workplaces in which union membership had fallen to very low levels. The 'culture of trade unionism', as one full-time official described it, was being lost. Workplaces tended to divide between the few that retained a relatively high union membership density and the majority whose membership levels were in serious decline. In one North London Health Authority, for example, union organisation in a community Health Care Trust was over 70 per cent, whilst in two geographically adjacent Trusts it had declined to less than 15 per cent of the workforce. In an insurance company, union organisation was concentrated in business units with declining staff numbers, whilst areas of employment growth (such as the 'direct line' call centres) were non-unionised.
There was strong evidence that the local union branch no longer provided an effective forum for active membership engagement. Some union branches existed on paper only, whilst others held branch meetings that a handful of lay representatives attended. Local participation by members was confined to informal workplace discussions, occasional ballots or 'crisis' meetings around issues like redundancy. Traditional forms of collective organisation based upon skill and work organisation had been eroded, with the unions finding no alternative ways of reconstructing the foundations of collectivism. Undoubtedly, the fragmentation of the union membership into business units, the effects of contracting out, the casualisation of employment conditions, demands from management for greater 'flexibility' and the rising intensity of work all contributed to the ossification of union organisation at workplace level. These adverse conditions, however, could not fully explain the reasons for union decline. Paradoxically, examples of good organisation existed where the membership was spread widely across a variety of geographically dispersed workplaces and where, for example in one local government branch, the union membership consisted of mainly part-time women employees. Finally, several case studies revealed that members felt the union could do relatively little to change things at work. The dilution of the 'culture of trade unionism' was accompanied by a sense of powerlessness. In turn, this passivity placed severe limitations on individual and collective aspirations. As an insurance worker, whose company was implementing redundancies, explained: 'Our [union members] main concerns are have I got a job and how long will it last for. It is good to know that the union is there but the staff don't believe it has muscle. We don't want to strike and management know it'.
On union representatives, the case studies revealed across all sectors a shrinking activist base even in the relatively well-organised branches. The conduct of union activities fell on the few, though there was strong evidence to suggest that the most successful and innovative local union organisations had women playing leading roles. The activist core of the union could no longer, however, effectively represent memberships that were spread across a variety of workplaces and often several employers or local bargaining units. The fragmentation of collective bargaining in the public services, the growing role of contractors, and the movement of union members from the public to the private sector, tended to stretch local union resources to the limit. In the financial services, workplace representatives were also over-burdened and thinly spread, whilst having to cope with a growing volume of individual casework as well as continuous rounds of complex negotiations over work reorganisation and redundancies.
The general picture of a hard pressed core of union officers and local union activists doing the best they could under immensely difficult circumstances, was leavened by examples of innovative forms of organisation and communication. A senior manager in an insurance company acknowledged that the union had effective control over communications with staff. The union used e-mail links, bulletins and leaflets to inform staff of the latest twists and turns in company approaches to rationalisation and restructuring; and, in the public sector, there were examples of effective local recruitment campaigns and the better organised branches coming to the assistance of the less well-organised. Overall, however, the links between the unions and their members at local level were thin and over-reliant upon the commitment and effort of the few for whom finding new blood to replenish their ranks was a difficult task. In several cases management had reduced time-off facilities for the conduct of union affairs and imposed restrictions on union representatives' activities, limiting them to the immediate group of members with whom they worked. In short, there were clear indications that workplace unionism was in danger of becoming a hollow institution.
Finally, unions, in all the service industries covered by the research, faced many industrial problems that were a direct product of political intervention. This took a variety of forms, including privatisation, compulsory competitive tendering, the introduction of internal markets and the development of new regulatory arrangements. These policies had a significant impact upon management organisation and their approaches to employee relations. As a consequence, workplace unionism confronted political issues almost on a daily basis. Paradoxically, as the Conservative government reduced the union role in wider political affairs, the state used increasingly direct forms of political intervention to assist in the restructuring of management/workforce relations at workplace level.
There is strong evidence that the acute difficulties facing workplace unionism are not confined to those industries covered by the case study research. Surveys, reports and recent TUC conferences and union seminars have indicated that all unions face a shortage of person-power to carry out recruitment and organising activities2; that unions are excluded in many important areas of economic activity with density rates being as low as 11 per cent in wholesale and retail trades, 8 per cent in hotels and restaurants and 13 per cent in the business services sector; and that derecognition cases are on the increase.3 So what have unions been doing to reverse decline and provide the basis for renewal?

Strategies for renewal
The choice facing trade unions is stark. They may adopt policies aimed at managing their own decline or devise strategies directed toward growth and renewal.
The renewal strategies developed over recent years may be grouped under several headings. Unions have embarked upon internal reorganisation; launched new organisation and recruitment initiatives; attempted to exploit the potential of institutional reform, using, in particular, the levers provided by European directives; and, more tentatively, pushed for new 'partnerships' with employers aimed at promoting greater co-operation between the various 'stakeholders' in industry.
Internal reorganisation has been dominated by union mergers and a gradual push downward of resources to the local level. The merger process began in the late 1960s. Adverse conditions over the last decade have accelerated this trend. Unions have tended to consolidate within broad economic sectors, becoming 'general' unions in the process. UNISON, for example, was formed through a merger of NUPE, NALGO and COHSE in 1995, emerging as the largest union in the UK. More recently, the CPSA and IRSF merged to form the Public Services, Tax and Commerce Union (PTC). Mergers have been accompanied by cost-cutting exercises, reducing the number of full-time union officials, and the introduction of internal reforms aimed at professionalising union management. Professionalisation has coincided with attempts to use information technologies to improve services and support for local representatives and union members. These developments prompted debates about the future direction of unions. In the early 1990s, there was a tendency amongst union leaders to embrace a 'service-oriented' approach to their members with officers encouraged to perceive themselves as members of 'sales' teams offering members and potential recruits 'packages' that included insurance and financial and legal services. Enthusiasm for this approach has waned recently as unions have realised that members tend to go to the 'real' capitalist enterprises if they want these services, and surveys found that members preferred their unions to concentrate on defending their interests at work rather having their union membership assume the same status as a Tesco loyalty card.4 This realisation was accompanied by renewed attempts, partly prompted by the TUC, to improve organisation and recruitment strategies.
Various recruitment initiatives have been introduced by individual unions. These have been informed by experiences of unions abroad, particularly in the USA, Western Europe and Australia. In 1996, the TUC pressed for legislation to secure legal recognition rights, anticipating a possible Labour victory in the 1997 general election. The new Labour government, however, found no place in the Queen's Speech for a bill providing limited recognition rights for employees in workplaces where at least fifty per cent of staff were union members. Such a Bill might have offered some assistance to union recruitment efforts, though implementation would have been a complex business. Within unions there was also concern that a fifty per cent target might have been used as much by employers as an opportunity, where membership was low, to derecognise. Whatever the case, the delay in implementing legislative change leaves recruitment and recognition in the hands of individual unions.
Several unions have devised plans for shifting their full-time officers away from servicing individual members, through casework, towards dedicating more time to recruitment and organising activities. Between 1995-97 a number of unions, including UNISON, MSF, GMB and the TGWU adopted strategic plans which set recruitment targets and organising initiatives aimed increasing lay representation in individual workplaces. The TUC organised a 'Respect' music festival in the summer of 1996 as part of its initiatives aimed at demonstrating the relevance of trade unionism to a wider audience of women, black and young people. At workplace level, these initiatives have, as yet, achieved mixed results. The main impediments to their success are the lack of resources on the ground capable of sustaining recruitment activity and the many obstacles thrown in the path of union organisers by employers. Employers in the financial services have, for example, tended to make some workplaces no-go areas for unions, particularly workplaces in which large numbers of staff have been brought together in white collar data processing and direct line 'factories'. As one union representative, interviewed during the conduct of the case study research recalled:
The company's Direct Line customer services division was set up on a greenfield site. New staff, many of them women workers, were taken on. We secured a few members at the site as a result of internal transfers within the company. With their help, we planned a recruitment activity at a local bar that many of the staff use during their lunch hours. We made it obvious that we were from the union when we entered the bar. There were lots of staff in there. As we moved round the bar, trying to talk to people, they moved away from us. It was as if we had the plague. Management had made sure that staff were too fearful to talk to us. We knew that there were problems at work but no-one had the confidence to come forward and join the union. The consequence has been that staff turnover, so we hear, is very high, much higher than in other workplaces within the company. Without the union to help them, staff stick it for a while and when it becomes too much, they leave. In their attempts to alleviate their domestic difficulties, British unions have turned to Europe to find new 'institutional' ways of arresting decline. As a result of the 1994 Directive, providing for the establishment on a voluntary basis of European Works Councils (EWCs), 200 EWCs were set up across Europe over the following two years. This included the establishment of EWCs by 29 UK-owned multinationals, amongst whom were BT, NatWest Group and ICI. By September 1996 the voluntary directive was replaced by a legal obligation, though the Conservative government did not implement this because of the opt-out clause negotiated at Maastricht. The works councils initiative was followed by further European legislation that required companies to introduce consultation in situations where redundancy or a transferral of business took place.
These European initiatives were given a renewed importance by the readiness of the new Labour government to sign up to the Social Charter. Britain moved into line with its European partners in relation to requiring companies to establish works councils in those enterprises which employ more than 1000 staff in Europe. Whilst many companies see works councils as a means of introducing 'soft' forms of employee consultation, the adoption of the Social Charter provides an opportunity for UK unions to re-establish the negotiating and consultative rights that have been eroded in many major UK companies over recent years. But there are dangers. Where unions cannot claim to represent the majority of the workforce it is likely that employers will establish alternative systems for employee representation, which may severely limit the union role; and, even where union representatives play a significant part, there is no guarantee that the works council will be much more than a talking shop. Despite these hazards, works councils provide a vehicle for unions to develop their own networks of international links and put together more informed pictures of their employer's business strategy. Taking advantage of these institutional innovations, however, is not a substitute for renewal at workplace level. In the absence of the latter, the union representatives who take their places in the boardrooms of major companies will have no more authority than those staff representatives chosen by management.
Along with the new enthusiasm for Europe, unions have begun to adopt the language of 'social partnership' as an ideology that binds together their strategies for renewal. The language of partnership has echoes of the 'business unionism' model adopted in the mid-1980s, initially by the maverick electricians' union and subsequently by several others. In the mid-1990s, however, the concept of partnership has found some receptive ears amongst managers who, in the wake of rationalisation and downsizing, have tempered their 'macho-styles', in an attempt to restore staff morale with the adoption of softer approaches that emphasise employee commitment, empowerment, teamworking and staff development. Partnership implies that there are areas of employee relations where they may be 'common ground' between management and labour - particularly in relation to such matters as training and the introduction of more flexible forms of working. The problems with the concept of partnership, like that of 'stakeholding', are that it disguises the underlying inequalities that structure the relationships between the participants; and, secondly, it creates the impression that common interests exist where often they do not. Michael Moore, in recounting the experience of US labour unions of co-operation and partnership, illustrates this point with comic/tragic irony:
The leadership of the Communications Workers of America was so stupid that, in 1992, they agreed to let AT&T start a 'Workplace of the Future' programme in which labour and management would 'work more closely together' in teams, instead of in traditionally 'confrontational' mode. The next year AT&T closed forty regional centres and eliminated 4,000 jobs. The union still didn't want to dissolve the team. After six more months of 'co¬operation' AT&T cut 15,000 more jobs. The union still didn't want to dissolve the team - and so a year later, AT&T announced it was firing another 40,000 employees! Only then did it dawn on the union leaders that AT&T were up to something.5
Institutional and ideological strategies which emphasise partnership between union and employer amount to the acceptance by unions that they can no longer provide an independent form of collective organisation capable of safeguarding and articulating members interests. Such strategies can only assist unions to manage the prolonged process of their own decline. An alternative approach involves contesting areas even where there appears to be common ground, and ensuring that 'services' to members strengthen collective involvement rather than reinforcing the atomisation of their experience of work. On training and staff development, for example, unions like UNISON, TGWU and BIFU, have successfully launched programmes of membership education which challenge the narrow competency based schemes often provided by employers and TECs. The programmes, undertaken in partnership with further and higher educational institutions, have developed critical social analysis as well as practical skills and raised the aspirations and self confidence of union members. Such programmes, still in their infancy, provide a real link between the unions and their members. They could even lend substance to Labour's vague commitment to 'lifelong learning'.

Unions and New Labour
Whilst unions have wrestled with the problem of reversing decline in membership levels and establishing ways of reconnecting with their grassroots, New Labour has successfully moved in a different direction. Ignoring its traditional base, the new political class that runs the Labour Party has wooed middle England and won the election against a demoralised and divided Tory party. Now Labour has set about its task of restoring public support in the institutions that run British society. At the same time it is remoulding those institutions with assistance from business and the aid of the rhetoric of the new management techniques. Labour has appointed leading businesspeople to develop more positive approaches to the European Union and financial affairs, and has moved quickly to reassure those in industry sceptical about the impact of a minimum wage. It has signed the Social Charter at the same time as it pledged to spread the doctrine of labour flexibility amongst its European partners. It has adopted an ethical Mission Statement to guide its foreign policy whilst encouraging Ministers with responsibility for spending departments to 'think the unthinkable' in undertaking reforms in areas like health, education and social security. In brief, it has borrowed the fashionable language of the business world and the ethical values of the Body Shop to dress up an essentially authoritarian agenda, particularly in the areas of social policy and employment.
The cocktail of mission statements and business ethics espoused by New Labour may reflect the mood that exists in many British boardrooms. The confidence expressed by the entrepreneurial culture of the Thatcher years has been undermined by a lengthy period of recession and restructuring and a bad press in which the 'fatcats' were mercilessly attacked. In response, ethical capitalism has gained ground. This ethos, however, offers little comfort to ordinary trade union members, some of whom have already experienced its effects. The Co-operative Bank, for example, resurrected itself following a significant decline in profitability in the wake of the recession that hit financial services in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1991 the bank re-discovered its roots by applying ethical values to its investment strategies. Its ethics stood in stark contrast to those prevailing in the financial world. The marketing ploy appealed to the middle classes. The bank's customer base was restored and replenished. Its business services expanded in niche markets in the voluntary sector and amongst small businesses. Its ethical values were passed to its own workforce. Staff were encouraged to attend 'our heritage' seminars. Since the re-discovery of its heritage, the bank has also shed around 1000 jobs.
The new moral climate created in the wake of Labour's election victory may serve to reduce the overt hostility to trade unionism that has prevailed for several years. It may also provide opportunities for trade unions to re-enter government offices and company boardrooms. Such an 'institutional fix', though, does not provide a sound foundation for renewal. In several industries and many workplaces trade unionism is absent or in serious decline. In those workplaces where union organisation exists it is under considerable pressure and is often reliant on a dedicated few. For the unions, returning to their old ways is not an option. The world of work has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Despite media attempts to suggest otherwise, strikes in the 1990s do not have the same frequency or social impact as those which occurred in the 1970s. Their narrow terms, often designed from the union perspective to 'limit the damage', inevitably reduce their social and political significance and tend, paradoxically, to be illustrative of weakness rather than the potential for renewal. Whilst union activists may argue strongly against the punitive Tory legislation that places severe limits on the most elementary right of trade unionists to take solidarity action in support of others in dispute, there is, regrettably, no evidence of support for the restoration of this basic democratic right within the wider society. In brief, it is a mistake to regard the occasional strikes that arise in contemporary Britain as a measure of the potential for renewal. To do so amounts to a romantic desire to restore or reconstruct the past.
The re-establishment of the industrial/political relevance of collectivism, like that of class, is a longer term project and takes place in what Geoff Mulgan and others have called an 'anti-political' age. For Mulgan, the restoration of trade unions as effective social institutions rests upon their capacity to help re-shape the labour market and assist those who may be casualties of the transition to a post-industrial society.6 The evolution of trade unions into providers of unemployment insurance and into employee mutuals that sell on labour to enterprises, as well as Mulgan's case for the development of the shared ownership of businesses between labour and capital, contain echoes of the writings of the nineteenth-century Utopian socialists, particularly Owen and Proudhon. Mulgan's argument for the reconnection of ownership and responsibility also contains many of the methodological errors of his nineteenth-century predecessors and is no more practical today than it was over a century ago. The weaknesses are, at least, fourfold. First, unions no longer have the roots in crafts and occupations that would enable them to effectively influence or control the supply of labour into specific industries and labour markets. (Ironically, the last vestiges of such controls were destroyed in the 1970s and 80s in areas like shipbuilding, the docks and printing.) Second, their emergence as providers of welfare benefits would require resources and finance that they have not got. Third, and most importantly, new forms of partnership, and joint or shared ownership, cannot buck the demands of the capitalist market, as the recent failure of some mining communities' attempts to take over their own pits has proved. Changing the form of ownership of capital (between entrepreneurs, institutions, the state and even labour) does little to challenge, and often assists in, the maintenance of its domination as an 'organic system'.7 Finally, the roots of union strength lie in the workplace and in its capacity to challenge the decisions that arise from this system of domination. Mulgan tends to ignore the systemic roots of the differences between labour and capital and focus on an idealised notion of co-operation that has little resonance in a real world driven by downsizing and work intensification.
The future of labour collectivism depends upon its ability to acknowledge the basic antagonism inherent in the relations between employers and workers to reject the rhetoric of social partnership and develop an independent political voice within society. The prerequisite for this is renewal from below, a slow process through which organised labour reasserts itself as an agency of democratic involvement and social change, that challenges the prevailing culture of ‘there is no alternative* shared by the main political parties. In short, effective renewal rests upon re-kindling the individual and collective aspirations of labour and lending these new organisational forms. To achieve this unions need to reconnect with their members at the workplace level; to challenge the trends toward the atomisation of the experience of work which the new management approaches emphasise; and to develop their own agendas for delivering 'services', like education and training, which require the member to participate as part of a collective group rather than consume as a passive individual. The renewal of collectivism requires patience, and a preparedness to embrace new ways of organising those who are now accustomed to a work culture that encourages the politics of self-limitation.


1. The case study research on the public sector and privatised utilities was carried out in conjunction with Peter Fairbrother, Centre for Comparative Labour Studies, University of Warwick and Sian Moore, Labour Research Department.
2. Labour Research Department (LRD), 'Recruitment - Stopping the Rot', Labour Research, September 1996.
3. Labour Force Survey, 1995.
4. J. Waddington, quoted in 'Recruitment - Stopping the Rot', see note 2.
5. M. Moore, Downsize This'., Boxtree, London 1997.
6. G. Mulgan, Connexity, Chatto and Windus, London 1997; G. Mulgan and T Bentley, Employee Mutuals: the 21st Century Trade Union, Demos, London 1996.
7. I. Meszaros, Beyond Capital, Merlin, London 1995.