Why have our trade unions declined?

Chris Strafford
trade unions

This article is the first part of an exploration through the modern trade union movement in Britain, its decline, its relationship to the existing working class, the challenges union militants encounter, the re-organisation of the working class and the prospects of returning trade unions to genuine centres of resistance and schools for socialism.

As the first true capitalist power Britain saw the early rise of trade unions with capital churning social relations creating a working class that swiftly became a social majority concentrated in the growing cities and industrial towns. The industrial revolution and the technical innovation that multiplied the power of human labour set in motion a society on its way to abundance. The trade unions, the cooperatives, methodists and a whole host of working class associations built and sustained a working class culture and movement that raised the material and intellectual wealth of workers in every part of Britain.

Yet this world formed in the 19th and early 20th century has all but disappeared over the last 50 years. This has cast the socialist movement adrift, grasping in the dark for new agents of revolutionary change or holding out for renewal in many of today’s unions. That the multiple crises now sweeping across our society have not instigated a renewal of the workers’ movement and the trade unions raises many uncomfortable questions for those of us struggling towards the refoundation of communist politics as a viable and modern alternative to capitalism.

What  has changed in Britain where the trade unions have gone from a shining example to the nascent international working class movements of the 19th century to a backwater? Why have some unions on the railways or in the public sector survived this decline and even evinced militancy in combating both Tory and the New Labour governments? Do the pop-up and minor unions, often focussing on the most marginalised workers, hold answers for the renewal of trade unionism in Britain? If the workers’ movement and their trade unions are marginal and broken, where will renewal for the Left come from?

Declawed and on the decline

Today trade union membership stands at just over 6 million a small improvement on last year but nowhere near the 13 million reached in the 1970s. Strike days too have remained at historic lows for nearly two decades, resistance to austerity registers only the most marginal uptick in strike action. Never have workers managed to reach the high point of the General Strike in 1926 and the heady days of 1972, 1979 and 1984 seem otherworldly. Britain ranks among the lowest when it comes to collective bargaining trailing behind most European states.

The numbers only paint part of the picture as the wider world of the trade unions with its clubs, education services, insurance societies and its everyday relevance to our lives has disappeared almost entirely. The loss of strike days and members have gone hand-in-hand with this whole world blinking out of existence.

Unions have been under sustained attack in Britain for over 50 years and recent attacks on teaching unions are a continuation of long held ruling ideology. Both the Tories and Labour indulge in these attacks when in office. From the enemy within during the 1984/5 Miners Strike to the anti-trade union laws brought in by Margaret Thatcher and later expanded under David Cameron we have some of the most restrictive anti-union laws in the democratic world. Writing in 2018 FBU General Secretary Matt Wrack explained that:

The Trade Union Act 2016 was only the latest in a long line of laws designed by the Tories to undermine the power and organising ability of workers and our unions, by making most forms of industrial action illegal.

The 1984 and 2016 Trade Union Acts have armed the bosses to the teeth whilst placing often insurmountable hurdles for basic union activity. On the rare occasion workers meet turnout thresholds the bosses can challenge a ballots validity. With the law and power firmly stacked in favour of bosses against organised workers there has been a turn to lawfare approach where employers can immiserate trade unions that dare to take action confident in a judiciary built to protect their rights at the expense of their workers. This imbalance has allowed an already cautious trade union leadership to step back from confrontation and struggle. Unions too have opted for fighting in the courts over leveraging membership power through industrial action. Success here has been limited with victories being overturned by later court decisions or simply remaining unenforced.

With its decline the trade unions adjusted to the new normal, mergers gave an impression of strength as smaller unions disappeared along with their industries. In 1983 ‘New Realism’ became the norm with Len Murray, later Lord Murray, putting the unions onto a deeper collaboration footing, working with government and employers and thus becoming part of the managerial control and discipline processes of modern working life. Many on the Left couldn’t accept what had changed whilst others such as the Eurocommunists went into bat for the bureaucracy selling the defeats of the 1980s, the new legislation and conservatism of the trade unions, as giving unions “enhanced power under the government’s trade union reforms” making them “better able to voice the concerns of their members and people more generally.” [1] The exact opposite was true and this new approach ensured workers entering struggle were often left isolated to be humiliated and defeated. This played out most tragically with the 1984/5 Miners Strike where the miners received kind words from the TUC but left to face down the British state and the coal board alone.

Conservative inertia

At 16 and a young trade unionist I remember the horror of joining USDAW at Index (Littlewoods) and working out that the rep was the deputy manager and the health and safety officer was a shift supervisor. Asking the union to represent me during disciplinaries for tardiness worked out as well as you can imagine. My branch meetings for shop workers in the centre of Birmingham consisted of me, two retired members and a full-timer who was more interested in his new watch and flashy car than the retail workers that paid his wages. Throughout my working life this crossover between management and lay union officials has been a constant feature. Many of them were sincere trade unionists and were paid a pittance, taking on extra work and finding themselves in impossible positions whilst being the face of the owners. Though of course, many driven by self-interest, relished the small scale tyranny afforded to them by their position. My experience is not unique and most workers outside of the public sector only encounter the unions as something to do with management, a few quid off their home insurance, something to do with the three day week and power cuts or the bogeyman in the papers.

For most trade union members the union is just another service that you have an individual and atomised relationship to. Outside of the militant holdouts union institutions are alien and distant. Part of the problem lies in the mediation of capital and labour. The union is there to  push both the interests of its members and yet and at the same time needs to maintain cordial relations with employers and state bodies. They work within the framework of discussions and employment law which puts enormous pressure to solve disputes by reaching common ground. Regularly this amounts to little more than blunting the edge of employers who are on the front foot.

Rarely in Britain will you see the trade unions on the offensive achieving significant gains for their members. Even though, should they fight, they can win. Militant holdouts with relatively high wages with a more engaged membership have kept alive some of the rank-and-file traditions that once animated the whole movement. Take for example the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) or the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) who have both fought successive governments to a standstill. New Labour used the British Army in ‘Operation Fresco’ to try and break the FBU strikes in 2002 with much of the media heaping additional pressure on firefighters by vilifying them. Similar tactics are used against the RMT who are held responsible for everything from poor productivity of London’s workforce, ruining national holidays and for holding the country to ransom. The National Education Union (NEU) has recently received a dose of this treatment for being wary about opening up schools during the pandemic. They are vilified for fighting and where beaten are used as a warning to any other workers moving towards action.

However, even these unions and their leaders are beholden to a system of compromise. Where the conscious split between economic and political activity is reinforced to hold back workplace struggles from coalescing towards a general movement against the status-quo. Whilst it is true that most union officials live within the wage relation like most workers they are materially dependent on the continuation of the trade union and therefore the stability and maintenance of capitalist relations. Should that stability become endangered so too does their livelihood. Trade union leaders are often styled as NGO bosses, receiving exorbitant sums, national prominence and a red carpeted path to Parliament, the city council or a directors board once they relinquish their positions. They are the public face of modern trade unionism in Britain and, beyond a few ardent class fighters, are looked at with suspicion by most of the working class.

Loyalty to the British State

The position of the trade union bureaucracy, between capital and labour, also engenders state loyalty with unions rarely willing to press political or constitutional matters or to generalise sectional disputes into a wider political confrontation. We saw this with the 2009/10 student movement where the teaching unions, well aware of the damage rescinding the Educational Maintenance Allowance and jacking up tuition fees would have, failed to mobilise any real action in support of their students. In an unfinished article by Leon Trotsky, found on his desk following his murder in 1940, he concluded that a “common feature in the development, or more correctly the degeneration, of modern trade union organisations in the entire world: it is their drawing closely to and growing together with the state power.

During the 1926 General Strike the TUC were thrown into a position where they challenged the authority of the British state, open contests of power between workers and state forces took place across the country. The TUC leadership stepped back from confrontation leading to a catastrophic defeat and a widespread weakening of the workers’ movement. Lamenting the defeat of the strike the Communist Party of Great Britain concluded that the trade unions along with the Labour Party “had ever since the end of the war preached that “direct action” against the Government was harmful, that the “Community” was greater than the Labour movement, that the British Constitution gave equal opportunities to all classes.” A political commitment upheld by the leading bodies of the workers’ movement today, undermining effective struggle and campaigns.

Throughout the Miners Strike of 1984/5 the Thatcher government used everything at its disposal to isolate the miners and their families. Provocation and intimidation went hand-in-hand then the legal restrictions brought in under the Trade Union Act 1984 which made secondary picketing and votes for strike action to be considered unlawful. Leaving the miners and their families without basic social security payments, as the strike action was considered unlawful, in an attempt to starve mining communities back to work. At the time the right-wing of the TUC, led by Frank Chapple of the EETPU, later Baron Chapple, stated that to “advocate that bad laws should not be obeyed—in circumstances where such “bad” laws are enacted by a democratically elected government—are putting at risk the entire conception of civilised society. That directly challenges democracy… the way to change bad laws is to change the government that has made them.”[2]

Any reading of the history of our movement shows such claims to be complete nonsense. We all know that bad laws should be broken whether that is through solidarity actions between groups of workers, opposition to the Poll Tax, breaking the Corn Laws or the leaking of war crimes to the British public. Yet, Chapple’s view then is today’s unspoken norm, with the vast majority of unions led by those who could never consider risking the union’s bank balances and property portfolios to strike against the anti-union laws. This state loyalty plays an important part in this conservatism where institutional survival is put before class struggle.

Control the bureaucrats

Part of the way out of this is for the transformation of the unions into genuinely democratic bodies where the rank and file hold supreme power. Or, as Engels put it, “[i]n a country with such an old political and labour movement there is always a colossal heap of traditionally inherited rubbish which has to be got rid of by degrees.” To start with we need to fight to ensure the trade unions are free from all state control, that means the anti-unions laws need to be abolished entirely. Union officials need to be kept under the close control of the membership and should never receive a salary greater than the average wage of a skilled worker. Elected officials must be instantly recallable, subject to regular scrutiny and term limits.

A central plank of transforming the trade unions is to ensure there is an educated rank-and-file that can call out the bureaucracy and remain engaged in the daily life of their branches. Political education, common discussion and campaigning are a crucial political battle we need to win to build up a counterweight to the conservative bureaucracy.

When it comes to trade union leaders it is, as Don Milligan has remarked, not simply “a conspiracy of officials simply committed to defending their high wages, jollies, and junkets. On the contrary these institutions are an expression of the widespread desire for continuity and stability.” Organisational fixes and dealing with the bureaucracy can only go so far. There needs to be a clear alternative to capitalism that goes beyond Labourism. We need to convince the majority of the working class, not just in the unions, that the communism we’re offering is not going to be tyranny and bloodshed. The weight of the Soviet Union and the party dictatorship that arose from the Russian Revolution weighs heavily on our movement, so with good cause most workers baulk at running a repeat of that failure in Britain, they always have. 

To move forward we must reconnect with our principles but, as I will set out in a further article, we need strategies that flow from the reality of work in Britain today. Too often socialist militants tell us that a return to the shop stewards movement of the 1970s or a simple replacement of the existing union leadership will solve our problems. Many await to be called forth by the working class as a leadership in waiting. They will wait forever. Much of the Left exist in a world that has long passed and no matter how much they wish it, it is never coming back. Purposeful struggle should be the order of the day and that requires getting our own house in order. 

1.  Communist Party of Great Britain. (1990) ‘Manifesto for New Times: A Strategy for the 1990s’. London: Communist Party of Great Britain/ Lawrence & Wishart Ltd, pp. 33–34.

2. Quoted in an interview with Harry Paterson, author of Look Back in Anger:  The Miners’ Strike in Nottinghamshire – 30 Years On (Five Leaves Publications, 2014)