Trade Union and Employment Forum: Related Events

Future unions: challenges and strategy

John Monks (Lord Monks of Blackley), former General Secretary TUC, General Secretary of the European TUC, and Unions21 Board Member. Chaired by Sue Ferns, Chair of the Unions21 Steering Committee.

In providing a most stimulating strategic view as to where unions might go to renew their strength, John Monks sought inspiration from the past. He did so on the basis that the crisis facing Europe and the world should be categorised, as Will Hutton had done in a recent article in The Observer(18.9.2011), as a 'once in a century crisis of capitalism' and 'a 1930s style crash', the deflationary effects of which could last for decades into the future. John therefore looked back to the last similar crisis of the 1930s 'Great Depression' for clues from what unions did then and in the following decades to strengthen their very weak position after the 1926 General Strike defeat and demoralisation. From this, he identified a number of significant lessons for today's trade unionists.

After the General Strike 1926, union leaders such as Ernest Bevin of the T&GWU, facing a great reduction in membership, decided to maintain their funds and resources through subscription increases to around 2% of members' earnings. They did so by selling the value of such levels to members as a means of improving their organising strength. Although some public sector unions such as NUPE and private sector ones such as ASSET (the predecessors of UNISON and ASTMS) tried 'cut price' unionism, Bevin boldly showed the courage and far-sightedness needed to sustain this policy of building up union resources. A second thing they did, again led by Bevin, was to build up their strike funds so as to deter employers from trying to compete with each other through cuts in wages. This did have some effect, despite the Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act 1927 which outlawed general strikes, sympathetic action and picketing.

In the event, they did not need to use the strike weapon much because the TUC and major unions were also adopting a more cooperative approach to union-employer relationships which transformed the bitter pre-General Strike industrial relations atmosphere entirely. Integral to this approach was industry-wide bargaining, which developed across many sectors to control and regulate the falling wage levels, for example in construction engineering. Equally important was the encouragement they received from the state, whichever party held office, on account of the efforts of a progressive Ministry of Labour, later intensifying during the Second World War when Bevin himself became Minister of Labour. These agreements and alliances with employers led to recognition of unions across swathes of industry, and a growing membership - a pattern which lasted through the war and into the 1950s.

During the succeeding boom decades a more decentralising tendency set in as bargaining power shifted to the shop floor and to company and plant level. This tendency accelerated from the 1960s with union recognition extended on a company by company basis. However, the resulting fragmentation of bargaining did not lend itself to the necessary sense of solidarity across industries, especially to face the challenges of the Thatcher period. Interestingly, John noted that the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (which extends both north and south) held onto most of its industry-wide national agreements by accepting that they would be legally applicable, and so they became binding on all employers in the sector. This posed the question as to whether today, British unions might see more advantage from legally binding agreements on an industry or sectoral basis, than they have traditionally?

John also noted that in the 1930s-40s, Bevin also deployed the political clout of the T&GWU and the union block vote within the Labour Party's policy development and implementation both in opposition and in the war-time coalition government (and no doubt it helped that his own union was the Labour Party's landlord in Transport House!). After the fall of the MacDonald government in 1931 and subsequent electoral rout, the Labour leadership needed the unions. They adopted much of the TUC's industrial and welfare programme in opposition: the welfare state, nationalisation, public planning and incomes policy. The latter was less enthusiastically received by the unions, but Bevin pushed it with progressive boosts for the lower-paid during the war. John asked whether today such deals could be done with local authorities, the Co-operative Society and other non-government bodies? He noted that PFIs were now being blamed for some NHS problems by the Conservative Health Minister, Andrew Lansley, but asked why the Labour Opposition felt unable to defend their positive features.

The last feature he emphasised in the trade unionism of this earlier period was involvement by unions in administering welfare benefits. John recalled how the old craft unions (especially the engineers and the boilermakers) had a strong tradition which Lloyd George encouraged the general unions to adopt also as a statutory role. However, they turned it down. Bevin later offered this role during the war, but it was again declined, this time because the civil service unions wanted benefits administered through the state. John contrasted this with the Nordic, Belgian and Austrian unions who took it on enthusiastically and credited this engagement for their much higher density of union membership (80% by comparison with much lower levels in the rest of Europe, including Britain). He asked whether today, anyone would offer the unions such a role, and suggested that training was one function the unions might push to include in Labour's Manifesto for the next election. This had proved very important in the Belgian model, which he knew well from living there for the last eight years.

More generally, he felt that the Left has very little to say about what kind of society it would like to see. The Labour Party has been compromised by its recent government leaders' 'love-ins' with the Murdochs and as proponents of questionable wars, something that would be thrust in their faces for some time by the coalition parties. He reflected ruefully that the European ideal and alternative vision was under severe stress on account of the current Euro crisis. Southern Europe was clearly in serious trouble and the UK had no more 'oil bonanzas' like the North Sea in sight. But the real question for British trade unions, he thought, was whether we compete with other countries of northern Europe, never mind China. These were mostly social-market economies, with strong welfare states, solidarity traditions willingly paid for by high taxes, and balanced economies. He still felt that this was the model Britain should be adopting.


David Luxton (Prospect), asked about the relevance of the subs/resources 1930s strategy at a time when membership was being squeezed so much?

Roger Lyons (former TUC President and General Secretary of MSF/AMICUS), said that the change in make-up of the workforce and people not working together but often from home, made it a different world of work today. Bevin was able to grow his large union with the growth of large-scale manufacturing industries like cars and vehicles (Ford's Dagenham from the 1940s and other company's in Cowley from the 1950s). Today, the individualised workers do not believe that the subs they would have to pay would benefit them as much as in those collective establishments.

Mike Roberts (UNITE and a senior councillor), felt that unions were in a 'time warp', as the world of work that they thrived on had moved on, with new technology and a more mobile, literate, single-minded young workforce. They were simply not interested in joining unions. [Sue Ferns chipped in to question this generalisation, pointing to the very successful Unions21 'viral video' which was having so many young 'hits'].

John Monks (John), acknowledged the changes mentioned but maintained that unions do not sell their services and collective role aggressively enough. Subscriptions remained at the 'pint of beer' cost level and were extremely good value, if people only had it explained to them in bold terms. He mentioned the USA experience of the AEIU and Stern.

Hannah, wondered if politicised unions with Labour affiliation would get in the way of pitching for a welfare role? John agreed it might be an issue, but the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century craft unions were overtly Liberal in their outlook and did not have a problem with this.

Richard Darlington (IPPR), on this same theme supported the embedding of a union role in pensions provision in the next Labour Manifesto: every employer should be required to have a scheme in the future, with the unions having a major role. This in turn would encourage 'auto-enrolment' of employees in the unions.

John thought pensions were a very good case in point and praised the role of Baroness Jeannie Drake (ex CWU DGS) for her work on the Adair Turner Report.

Jim Moher (former CWU national official, History & Policy Trade Union Forum and a senior councillor), welcomed John's approach of examining the past for some lessons for today's challenges. He raised the issue of Lord Citrine's (TUC General Secretary, 1925-46) contribution, suggesting that his and Bevin's secret of success was that they were an effective team. He felt that the structural and individualisation changes to which other speakers referred were a major contributor to union decline but if John was right about the scale and duration of the current crisis of capitalism, those 'individualised' workers would now be looking for solutions and protection. Would this not be the opportunity for unions to again become relevant and worth the subs? John's point about role of the state in creating the climate in which unions prospered was crucial, he felt, and we should aim to include recovery of some of that position from the next Labour Manifesto. He also felt that cheap labour had been responsible for weakening unions (as the current leadership now openly acknowledges. The 'flexible labour market' philosophy of New Labour had encouraged migration within the EU without considering its impact on British workers and unions. He welcomed John's raising of legally-binding agreements idea, as the advantages now seem to outweigh the disadvantages. Finally, he thought that workers always flocked to effective unions and saw UNITE's conduct of the recent BA dispute as a major feather in their cap. John agreed that Citrine was also a very important figure of that time, but he had focussed on Bevin because of his organisational contributions. On the migrant labour issue, unions had tried to organise Polish and other east European migrants with some success, but there were now no benchmark industrial agreements setting pay and conditions levels, other than the legal minimum wage.

Jim Cornelius (former NUPE official and currently General Secretary of the racing stable staff union NAS), said their approach was unique in that they did not collect any subscriptions. He felt that the failure to support the 1977 Bullock Report on worker participation on company boards had been a key mistake by the unions: instead, the mantra of free collective bargaining prevailed in many unions then. John agreed that the union response had been 'half-hearted' at best, though the Bullock formula had been too complex and ambitious for immediate legislative purposes, especially in view of employer and major union opposition. He was surprised also that more recently, unions had not made much use of the EU Directive on Information and Consultation. [The item in Unions21's Forefront Autumn 2011, also had an interesting piece about Maurice Glasman's reference to this approach in the German economy.JM]

John Lloyd (Community and formerly Research Director of the EETPU/AMICUS), spoke about experiences in the engineering industry. He stressed the need to build up resources to defend against attacks on union representative facilities and the dangers of being too dependent on the state. John very much agreed this latter point and the need to maintain union independence.

Gary (Prospect), raised the question of the attitude of unions towards state involvement in social life across Europe and wondered if such intervention was not part of the problem? He asked whether there was not something for unions in the 'Big Society' idea which they could make use of, perhaps through encouraging employee share ownership? John agreed that the State was already massive (80% in the EU and 60% in the UK) and could only increase with the current global crisis and public ownership of the banks. In Denmark, the new Social Democratic government were outsourcing the administration of pensions to reduce the size of the public sector.

Christina, raised the importance of the minimum wage for voluntary sector workers and its inadequate level. John accepted that it was low at around £6 per hour, but he was still proud of it. Living Wage campaigners in London had improved it for City employees and even Mayor Johnson had to support those campaigns.

Jeff, thought we should be building youth sections with the other European unions and gave the Dutch example as a good model. He felt we were inclined to be too insular in Britain.

Geoff Kelly (Partnership Institute), argued for more partnership working with employers as a means to grow the unions.

Phil Wyatt (GMB and Labour Party), felt that the discussion was drifting and losing focus on the appropriate role of trade unions. It was not clear what its purpose should be, for example as regards young people. He felt that the core relationship was with employers and representation of employees was our core function. He referred to a very relevant TUC Report to Congress in 1993, but it had not even been debated! He stressed how dependent unions are on their employers to be effective, so we should stress the advantages of having unions to employers. It seemed that leaderships of individual unions were reluctant to admit this. He referred to a book by Alex Bryson and John Forth about the reasons for the union decline. They traced the increase in employment from the bottom of the recession of 1993 to the top of the following 'boom' to 2008, finding that employment went up by around 4 million. However, in the same period, union membership went down by around 700,000 even including the public sector.

In his concluding remarks, John Monks agreed that good relations with employers should be trumpeted and he noted that after the strike at BA, very positive relations had developed with UNITE. He was sceptical about the effectiveness of cross-border/multinational unions, viewing them as very costly to administer and of more benefit to the officials concerned as well as travel agencies! As Chair of the IPA, he was very much in favour of making partnership working a statutory responsibility of both employers and unions. He wanted to encourage the corporate governance debate.

Sue Ferns wound up what she regarded as a very important discussion. It should encourage all union activists and officials to lift their eyes from the immediate issues such as pensions. John's contribution and the comments in discussion had achieved Unions21's object in initiating this meeting. This was to bring out the importance of strategic thinking to enable future unions to deal better with the challenges they face.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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