1980s >> 1985 >> no-972-august-1985

What future for the unions?

The unions, here and in many other countries, have had a hard time during the depression. They have suffered some spectacular defeats, for example, the American Flight Traffic Controllers and the British coal miners have seen some wages reduced, and have lost members.

In this country trade union membership, after reaching its highest-ever level of over thirteen million in 1979, had fallen to
11,338,000 in 1983 and is now probably under ten million. Typical of many unions, the General. Municipal and Boilermakers Union has dropped from a million to 750.000. Many unions have lost far more members than can be accounted for by unemployment. Members in work have dropped out of their unions because they think that organisation is useless, and that the unions are forever a spent force.

They are wrong on both counts. Drastic falls of membership have happened before and for the same reasons, but the unions have always recovered and will do so again. What is more, the unions have been very effective in their efforts to maintain wages under adverse conditions. In this respect, experience in the present depression is similar to that of the past. In the Great Depression of the last quarter of the nineteenth century membership of those unions that were affiliated to the TUC dropped from 1,192,000  in 1874 to 464.000 in 1881. but by 1890 it was up to 1,470,000.

In the depression between the wars total union membership fell from 8,337,000 in 1920 to 4,387,000 in 1933. but it then steadily increased and reached 8,714,000 in 1946.

In both periods some unions were heavily defeated in strikes, like the engineers in 1897 and the so-called general strike and the seven-month coal miners’ strike in 1926. A brief summary of the Great Depression is given in the official Handbook on Industrial Relations, published in 1961 by the Ministry of Labour:

   A period of trade depression followed the year 1875 and lasted almost twenty years. During this period trade unionism lost some of its strength. Strikes were common and were almost invariably unsuccessful.

Much the same could have been said of trade union experience between the wars, but in both instances the picture of unrelieved failure is misleading. In both periods the level of prices (the cost of living) was falling. Between 1874 and 1895 prices fell by 30 per cent, such a fall being normal in depressions. Between the wars there was a fall of 40 per cent from 1920 to 1934, due partly to depression and partly to the government’s policy of reversing inflation by reducing the amount of currency in circulation.

In face of the fall of the cost of living in both periods, the statement that “strikes were almost invariably unsuccessful” needs to be corrected. If, say, in 1875 or 1927, a union came out on strike for higher wages and got no increase at all the strike would have been recorded as having failed. But if the result was that the money wage remained at or near the original level the outcome would have been that real wages had increased. Cole and Postgate in The Common People (1956, p.444) said:

   With prices falling at such a rate, the employed workers had only to avoid wage-reductions in order to secure a steady improvement in their real standards of living. Actually between 1873 and 1896 . . . average money-wages over all trades rose a little — perhaps by 5 per cent. This meant, in view of the fall in retail prices, a rise in real wage-rates of 35 to 40 per cent.

During the Great Depression trade unionism spread to occupations hitherto neglected by the existing unions which were mainly of skilled workers. It was greatly encouraged by the successful strike of dockers in 1889. Among the new unions Cole and Postgate list gasworkers, land workers, lower grade railwaymen, and merchant seamen. It was at that time too, that trade unionism developed among post office workers in spite of the defeat of the postmen’s strike in 1890.

The rise of average real wages in the Great Depression was repeated, though to a smaller extent, between the wars. In the early part, when prices were falling fast wages fell even more rapidly and real wages declined. But between 1929 and 1937, when prices continued to fall but more slowly, average real wages rose to a level 10 per cent above that of 1920.

The depression which began in 1979 has differed from the two earlier ones. Instead of the cost of living falling it has continued to rise because of the inflation policy of the government. The rise under the Thatcher government has been 70 per cent since 1979. Instead of having to maintain money wages against falling prices the unions since 1979 have had to struggle to increase money wages beyond the rise of prices, and have had some success. Official figures for the average weekly earnings of all workers show that, after some fall in 1979-1981, average real earnings after allowing for price rises have now risen to 10 per cent above the 1979 level.

To understand why this result has been achieved (and similar developments in the Great Depression and between the wars) it is enlightening to look back to what Karl Marx wrote in Wage-Labour and Capital in 1849:

   The more the division of labour and the employment of machinery extend, so much the more does competition increase among the labourers, and so much the more do their average wages dwindle.

Marx said the same in 1865 in Value, Price and Profit, with particular reference to the inevitability of wages falling in depressions.

He was writing at a time when unions were few, small and weak and it was true then that the unemployed competed for jobs by offering to work for lower wages. But as the unions grew in size and effectiveness they have, in greater or less degree, countered it. The members of a well organised union are able to offer resistance to wage reductions and their unemployed members do not offer to work for wages below the trade union rate. If Marx had lived until 1892 he would have appreciated the change of conditions brought about by the spread of trade unionism and would have agreed with the statement made in that year by Friedrich Engels about the “remarkable improvement” in the conditions of the workers in “the great trades unions”.

But how effective can trade unions be? There is a belief among trade union enthusiasts that if all workers were in unions instead of less than half of them, all problems of wages, conditions of work, and unemployment could be solved. They are quite mistaken.

In addition to their own problem of recruiting members the unions are circumscribed by the powers of the government, by the economic laws of capitalism, and by the particular state of trade union law at any time.

Two centuries of trade union history show that the last of these three is the least important. Trade union law has been alternately relaxed and tightened up and the unions have survived all the changes. They were first formed when they were entirely illegal and throughout the nineteenth century trade union law was for the most part more restrictive than it is now under the Thatcher government. It was under these latest restrictions of the law that the coal miners’ strike was defeated in 1984-5, but it was in a period of relaxed trade union law in 1926 that the so-called general strike and the seven-month miners’ strike were similarly defeated, despite the fact that in 1926 coal was almost the only source of energy. It was after those strikes that the law was again tightened against the unions by the Trade Disputes and Trades Unions Act of 1927.

Irrespective of the particular state of trade union law, if a government, having effective control of the machinery of government, the police, and behind them the armed forces, is determined to defeat a strike no matter what the cost, it will defeat it.

It is interesting to note an aspect of the successful dockers’ strike in 1889. The strike received wide-spread support from other unions and from the churches. And it was the Lord Mayor of London who presided over a committee which pressed the employers to give way. The organisers of the strike and of protest marches were in effect able to count on a tolerant attitude by the Metropolitan Police. Cole and Postgate, in The Common People (p. 429) had this comment:

   The companies for the first time became uneasy. They issued a furious attack on the police. They had been hoping for a struggle between the police and the strikers in which batons would break down the labourers’ enthusiasm: and they were foolish enough to let their disappointment be seen.

Here was a strike which the government, for whatever reason, had decided not to crush.

Trade unions need to take into account the limits on their actions imposed by capitalism’s dependence on profit and by its periodical depressions. Failure to do this often leads unions into embarking on long strikes which they cannot hope to win.

Unions can sometimes delay the introduction of labour-saving machinery which puts some of their members out of work, but in the long run they cannot prevent it. This is because employers who fail to adopt new machinery which reduces their costs of production lose their markets to competitors who do adopt it.

About the mass unemployment in depressions there is absolutely nothing that the unions (or the government) can do. The total number of jobs available to the workers and the total number of unemployed depend at any time on what quantity of the products of industry can be sold at a profit. This quantity increases in booms and falls in the periodic, inevitable depressions.

About wages, well organised unions can do something but it is strictly limited by the profit factor. Marx was only pointing to the obvious when he said that wages can rise, but not, for any length of time, beyond the point at which the wage rise wipes out all profit.

When profits are falling the unions’ efforts to raise wages therefore come up against increased resistance by the employers. Measured against the total of wages and salaries, company profits fell sharply in 1979-82 but have since then risen again equally sharply; which helps to explain why average real earnings have been rising again.

Total production, which fell at the beginning of the depression, has risen again to the level of 1979. There is no immediate prospect of trade union membership quickly recovering its losses. With increased output per worker, fewer workers are now needed for this output than were employed in 1979. It will require a further increase of production and sales before unemployment begins to fall. But already, though slowly, trade unionism is making headway in the newer industries — nuclear energy, electronics, and high technology -— and is attracting more of the non-manual, technical and managerial workers.

In due course the unions will increase their membership again and get back their lost confidence. This trend will continue until the next deep and prolonged depression, when the downward cycle will start all over again.

There is nothing the unions can do to escape this vicious circle until such time as the working class recognises the need to get rid of capitalism and establish socialism.

Edgar Hardcastle