Trade Union and Employment Forum

‘Trade Unions from the 1970s to the present’ and ‘Trade Union productivity and partnership, and the

History & Policy Trade Union Forum

Introductions were made by Alastair Reid (AR) and Jim Moher (JM).

Professor Richard Whiting

Professor Richard Whiting (RW), University of Leeds, delivered a paper on 'Trade Unions from the 1970s to the present'.

Professor Whiting outlined elements of difference from 'the last great era of proletarian struggles' (the era of strong union collective bargaining power, based on manufacturing industry in a 'self-enclosed world of work'). This now seemed 'a medieval drama' by comparison with today's individualised, service-dominated, flexible labour market in mostly non-unionised workplaces. The key differences he based his case on were political values of the State/all governments - from social democratic to neo-liberal. This he saw particularly on the question of statutory recognition rights and procedures, with the State abandoning its support for collective bargaining and regulating union recognition towards individual worker choice and the property interests of employers. Next, he saw changes in the interests people brought to work, where instead of work exercising a homogenising influence over employees which bound them together in unions to one where interests at work are 'now driven much more by concerns generated outside it: race, gender, disability, sexual orientation'. Now identified more as consumers than producers, workers and their representatives have a much diminished collective weight and their claims on the rest of society 'have been diluted and weakened.' In this scenario, he argued that 'people seek to fulfil identities formed outside employment when they come to work'. This change he saw as posing a serious challenge to traditional union ideas about mobilisation of interests at work and recruiting new members as workers 'looked to other organisations within their communities', besides trade unions. He instanced UNISON's new recruitment strategies as the best example of a union seeking to get its branches to connect with this new outlook of workers.

Professor Peter Ackers

Professor Peter Ackers (PA) of Loughborough University delivered a paper on 'Trade Union productivity and partnership, and the failure of workplace reforms'.

Professor Ackers' theme arose from the third element of the IR problems which emerged into public consciousness from the late 1950s - Inflation, Strikes and Productivity. The then dominant Oxford school (Donovan Commission - Hugh Clegg, Alan Flanders etc), persuaded government to stick with their 'Voluntarist Pluralist Solution', which saw the problem as mainly a management one in a situation where the formal national collective bargaining system had been overtaken by an informal one, dominated by local workplace shop-stewards. This had led to wages drift, leapfrogging and generally chaotic, fragmented local bargaining. However, unions and managers simply exploited the productivity bargaining solution advanced by the Oxford school, to get round incomes policies. These were modelled on such agreements as that at Fawley in 1964. So, a tougher Statist Pluralist Solution came into favour with Labour and Conservative governments, though they still accepted strong collective bargaining and 'responsible' unions, from 1968-72. But these too were rejected by the unions, whose industrial militants and many leaders were heavily influenced by a Marxist outlook which saw no IR solutions under capitalism. Professor Ackers stressed that historians need to take seriously the influence of those ideas. This led to the Neo-Liberal Solution of the 'Thatcherite' (with some 'New Labour' modifications) governments which abandoned any attempt to work through unions and instead favoured direct reform of the workplace IR and of union practices/structures, with flexible labour markets and reliance on market disciplines generally. This was about individualisation, casualisation and sub-contracting. The conclusion Professor Ackers drew from this turbulent past was that partnership policies between management and independent unions linking high performance unionised workplaces to status and security in a broadly social democratic society, were the only alternative to a government-driven neoliberal approach still favoured by the present New Labour and Conservative parties.


These presentations provoked considerable discussion with contributions from all of those present, though little consensus emerged.

Robert Taylor (RT) said he believed in the social contract but also believed that there had to be a wages policy. The root of current problems goes back to the early 20th century, to divisions between skilled and unskilled workers, which is why it is so useful to have H&P. Flanders, Clegg et al were wrong because they left out political economy, focusing just on wage struggles. The wages policy of the 1960s & 70s were Labour's attempt to address the real problems of Britain's economic decline. There were no Trade Unionist economists, all economists were neo-liberals, which is why the focus was on wages. He recalled the debates in the TUC, with the late Ken Gill of TASS/AUEW and other leaders adamantly opposed to any incomes policy. Sadly, the recently deceased Laurence Daly of the NUM was a great loss to trade union leadership of that time. Bill Jordan of the AUEW was very scathing of Left union leaderships. He couldn't understand why such firm socialists could champion 'free collective bargaining' so fervently. He mentioned John Goldthorpe's 'Affluent Worker' trilogy of 1970 and its influence.

John Lloyd (JL) also expressed sadness at Lawrence Daley's death. He said many TUs failed to address the productivity argument. Officials were accused of selling out if they helped employers to improve productivity. Some sections thought they should have taken advantage of the weakness of employers. In the 1960s, the electrical supply industry was transformed by productivity reforms led by the ETU under Les Cannon and the AUEW such as abolishing bogus overtime, improving the very low basic rates prevailing and facing down those opposed to clean-up. The Fairfield experiments show how the boiler-makers attempted to improve productivity, as did the shipbuilding industry. There had been decent conservative employers (UK-owned multinationals e.g. Unilever, Courthauld) who found it easy within the Cleggian atmosphere to speak to union officials. The textiles industries have been under-studied, but were the first group to confront the collapse of industry. All were undermined by resistance from those with a vested interest in the chaotic, informal system. He referred to the impact of the Industrial Relations Act 1971, which despite its legalistic approach did have links with elements of the Donovan Commission approach and how its failure had led to a hardening of Tory opinion against the unions, leading to Thatcherism. They had favoured a legalistic approach since their 'Giants Strength' pamphlet of 1958, but Thatcher now took it much further.

David Ayrton (DA) said sectional self-interest motivated the wage militancy of the 60's / 70's. The opposition to productivity bargaining was from a Marxist position- the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), within the Engineers Union, (which ironically was at the forefront of attempts to increase productivity during WW2 - Arthur Horner of the Miners Federation). It was often right-wingers in the unions who led strikes, prior to the 1970s. The Cold War was a major factor in creating hostility to productivity, portraying it as collaborating with the employers. The radical, Marxist left wouldn't have been so solidified were it not for the Cold War and the ending of the war-time Soviet Union/UK alliance. We need more historical research on this division and how communist leaders were pushed into the camp of the IS, SWP and the less-thinking political stream.

Denis Gregory (DG) said the chaos on the shop floor was caused by piecework (payment by results), which gave shop stewards enormous control e.g. in calling wildcat strikes. It is often forgotten that strikes were concentrated in two or three industries - heavy industries, shipbuilding and car manufacturing; there was no industrial relations problem in other areas. The British industrial relations problem was actually caused by a very small proportion of the economy at a time when the economy was shifting towards the service sector. It's important not to overplay the chaos.

JL said that Tebbit's law (Employment Act 1982) had a massive effect, abolishing the 'closed shop' and secondary action techniques, removing power from TU officials and slowing down union activity. The legacy is that people don't join TUs because they are not seen as effective, able to get things done; we need to rethink how we deal with employers in a crisis.

Jim Moher (JM) argued that TUs had real power at the time of the Jack Jones - Hugh Scanlon partnership on the TUC General Council, but it was in the context of a Labour government struggling to get to grips with a failing economy and Britain's fading power by State intervention in the labour market with purely incomes policies. JM said 'In Place on Strife' was a lost opportunity due to the breakdown in relations between Barbara Castle and Jones, which Jones later regretted as evidenced by his subsequent positive role in the Wilson Callaghan 'Social Contract'/Bullock Report governments of the 1970s. He made incomes policy acceptable to the TUC when combined with other 'social wage' policies. The 'In Place of Strife' White Paper had departed from the Donovan recommendations with its penal sanctions against recalcitrant local officials and shop-stewards. PA said we should read it again as there is a tendency to focus only on the penal aspects, though in fact most of it was based on the Donovan Report (1968). JM said Labour politicians contributed to the failure to do a deal at this time but it is accepted that the union leadership did overreact. In particular, they should not have rejected the light-touch balloting rules contained in the White Paper.

AR said it was good to be able to suggest areas where historians need to do more research and asked, what are the policy lessons for today? RW warned that things have changed so much that the 70s have no real lessons for us now and we shouldn't get stuck in the past. DA said the Cold War was the point that the Marxist Left and the Social Democrats split; the Second World War was the high point for Social Democrats in the TUs. PA said Donovan was fixated on engineering because of their base in Oxford and that there were worse areas. There is a need for more research on partnerships: can historians find case studies where partnership worked in the past? Are there any progressive employers who could be approached to learn from case studies, for example, Electricity Supply, Textiles and Coal? He said it is true that there is a tendency to focus on the industries with the worst problems and generalise out, but there were whole sectors where there were few strikes, which should be studied to find out why. In the footwear industry for example, there was piecework but little conflict, maybe because they had no strong shop stewards. DG suggested looking at the Rossendale slipper and shoe operation. He said activists played a key role, an important issue that is still relevant today and he disagreed with Goldthorp's thesis. RT said the result of activism - attacking the income policy and the Labour government - was that the skilled manual working classes (C2s) in the West Midlands and Lancashire swung to the Tories in 1979. The more the activism, the greater the swing; the appeal was tax cuts. The public sector was also becoming a problem by this time, including the nationalised industries - privatisation destroyed TU power. RW also saw this as the change from social democratic to liberal outlooks with the emphasis on legal rights to equal pay etc. This encouraged more detailed regulation of workplace issues but has also altered workers' focus on issues on which they might otherwise look to unions for assistance and advice.

DA said that 'In Place of Strife' was a key turning point; it brought together TU alliances in the Cold War context. I was working as a welder at International Harvester when Thatcher brought in the anti-Union laws. In the 1979 Confederation of Shipbuilders & Engineering Unions (CSEU) Strike, some sections were told to strike with other industries (for the minimum wage and a 30 hour week) for issues that didn't affect them. There was disunity and discontent and the Thatcher government perceived the weakness and introduced laws that drove a wedge through the movement. RT disagreed that the AEU were forced to strike.

DG said historians could shed light on this period and where the policy influence was coming from e.g. the joined up thinking, the influence of American multilaterals at a time when the UK had only just joined the EC. The Taft Hartley/Wagner Act 1947 greatly influenced Conservative legalistic thinking since their 1958 'A Giant's Strength, Some Thoughts on the Constitutional and Legal Position of Trade Unions in Britain'. The 1975 Bullock Report looked to the industrial order and successful tripartite structures in Sweden, and to the American business unions which had improved productivity and were seen as very successful. Had the unions been more united, it would have been difficult for Thatcher to push through privatisation.

JM asked what H&P should be focusing on? RT said we should concentrate on law and what law can do to restructure what's left of the TUs. It was European Commission President, Jacques Delors' address to the TUC in 1988 which helped the TUC confirm the shift to a legal rights approach. Also, the effectiveness of Tebbit's Law which dealt a killer blow by returning us to the pre-1906 model. This is relevant e.g. in relation to Vauxhall now as the lack of legal rights is rooted in history. RW suggested inviting a current TU employment lawyer to the group to consider law alongside the history.

RJ said law is a factor, but not key; changes in society have influenced TUs' ability to organise - the switch from collectivism to individualism - and their failure to deal with current issues. JM also mentioned the shift from manufacturing to service industries as a factor but as legal reform has been such a prominent feature of the changes we are discussing we will ensure that our website coverage of the history of unions and the law is developed and have a presentation in due course at the Forum. We need a holistic account of the place of the different factors in this crucial union/employer/society/state period.

JL said TUs' fascination with our internal culture and absorption with it is a problem. He recalled the sheer amount of time spent attending branch, regional and conferences during the season. It was more than five weeks of bizarre life, but felt quite normal. This absorption with the internal richness of our culture, the structure of TU meetings and conferences, has made it difficult to understand other people's priorities and made TUs intolerant of people who don't admire and respect their history. We should not forget the positive war-time and post-war Communist Party shop-steward/convenors' role. Their philosophy and solidity gave activists a model of class integrity and a coherent mindset which was lost as they were replaced by ultra-left types.

RT said it would be helpful to invite a social historian in to speak about the changing nature of the British working class. There used to be 60% union density, now it's less than half. Union membership is also declining in Germany and Europe.

JL pointed out that everyone has completely ignored the employers at these turning points: how they think, coordinate, formulate and deploy collective responses to TUs (e.g. the EEF), which are crucial. TUs' capacity to thrive was often at the say-so of employers and partnership approaches could be useful in flushing out employers and forcing them to recognise TUs. RT suggested Howard Gospel (Said Business School, Oxford) as a speaker. He also said the group should explore the Conservatives' ideas about TUs, the tension between individualism and corporatism. What would a future Conservative government do in this area: Would they pull out of the EU Social Chapter, repeal recognition laws etc? PA suggested John Ramsden (QMUL), the Conservative historian, as a potential speaker.

PR said that 1945 to 1950s was an interesting period. The Oxford group in the UK was very insular, but in Germany and Sweden, TUs were more aware of their international context, became part of the solution instead of the problem and were therefore supported buy employers. RT suggested Andrew Taylor (Sheffield University) to talk about this.

AR suggested that historians could offer a longer perspective on these problems. He suggested that at the November meeting, we invite Alan Bogg to talk about Labour and Liberalism in the present day, and he would talk about the 19th century. [Since this meeting, it has been agreed that we focus on the Osborne Judgement instead as it will be the centenary of the judgement in December.] We hope that Paul Ryan will lead a meeting on skills and training policy in May.

It was agreed that Saturdays are best for the group to meet and AR suggested regularising the day to the last Saturdays in May and November.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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