Various commentators, from their different standpoints, fear (or hope) that the
British trade unions are finished as an effective factor in workers’ lives. They point to the loss of between two and three million union members since 1979, to the tightening of the law against the unions carried out by the Thatcher government and to the fading hope of the unions that a non-Tory government would restore the law to what it used to be. They also say that, because of the decline of manufacturing industry and the emergence of new industries not yet unionised, the old basis of the union movement has been or is being destroyed for ever.
One observer. Frances Cairncross, editor of the Economist, reviewing books on the unions in the Times Literary Supplement (24 April 1987) states the case for non-survival, holding that the low point was reached under the Callaghan Labour government in the winter of discontent just before the 1979 election.
This winter of discontent was the lowest ebb in the history of the British trade union movement. . . . But since the Thatcher government was elected, the unions appear to have been routed: no beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street, no concessions to Red Robbo, or to Arthur Scargill, no states of emergency, or solemn-and-binding agreements. These books leave a question in the air: is this one more temporary shift in the balance of power between employers, government included, and organised labour? Or has something more radical happened to the British trade union movement, which means that neither it nor the political party it finances will ever recover?
Cairncross reminds readers, however, that this is by no means the first time the British unions have lost members. Membership fell from 8,348,000 in 1920 to 4.392.000 in 1933 but eventually recovered and reached about 13,000,000. The fall after 1920, which cost the unions nearly half their members, was in fact much more severe than the loss of members since 1979, which has been perhaps 25 percent of the total. Membership always falls in a long depression because of unemployment. This leads Cairncross to the cautious conclusion that the unions may recover, “although not in the appallingly anarchic form of the 1960s and 70s”.
An article in the Financial Times (6 April 1987) takes a more gloomy view but is chiefly interesting for using, as a standard by which to assess trade union effectiveness, the fact that “Strikes plummeted to their current 50-year low”. What the writer implies is that lots of strikes are evidence that the unions are doing well for their members and if there are few strikes the reverse is true.
In fact past experience shows almost the exact opposite. Generally speaking periods in which the number of strikes is high are periods in which wages are falling and periods of rising wages are marked by a fall in the number of strikes. The reason for this is obvious. The time when the unions have their best chance of getting wage increases and improvements in working conditions is when capitalism is going through a phase of expanding production, booming sales and high and rising profits. In such conditions the last thing the employers want is to have the flow of profits halted by strikes. To avoid them the employers have good reasons to make concessions. From the union point of view the most successful strike is the one that does not happen.
In a depression the position is reversed. How much pressure can the union bring to bear on the employer by threatening to close the factory, when the employer is closing it anyway because it is operating at a loss? The period 1921 to 1926 was one of falling real wages when wages were being reduced faster than the fall of prices. It was a period of numerous and prolonged strikes, most of which were unsuccessful.
At that time the government published figures showing how many of the strikes were outright victories for the unions, how many were outright victories for the employers and how many were compromise settlements. In the years 1921 to 1926 the percentage of strikes which were outright victories for the employers was three and a half times those the unions won. By contrast the following period. 1927 to 1933, saw real wages rising again but the number of strikes was only half what it had been in 1921-1926, when wages were falling.
The same has been evident in the last few years. Since 1980 production has been expanding again after the 1979 depression, profits have risen to peak levels, and although never a week passes without Thatcher or some other minister saying that wages ought not to rise more than the rise of prices that is what has been happening. The average real wages of those workers who are in work have been rising again. In this situation a fall in the number of strikes over wages has been what past experience leads us to expect.
Strikes, not about wages, but about loss of jobs are a different question. Miners lost jobs because of the development of cheaper fuels, oil. gas and nuclear energy. Printers’ jobs were destroyed as the result of new and cheaper techniques. Here the workers are up against one of the inescapable facts of life in capitalist society, despite the belief of many workers that capitalism would be different under a Labour government. Capitalism is run for profit and whether it is the Tories or the Labour Party which takes on the job of government their aim is. and has to be, to enable British capitalism to survive against world competition. This means that the government has to do what it can to promote the adoption of new and cheaper techniques of production, no matter what this means in loss of jobs for the workers dependent on the obsolete methods.
The Wilson Labour government in its National Plan adopted in 1965, spelled out its aim of getting rid of 179,000 miners, and did so. It said that loss-making pits were being closed down as quickly as possible. The Plan also had something to say about the printing industry. It was hoped that output per person in the printing and publishing industry could be increased by “labour-saving investment”, so that “the industry’s projected need for 35.000 additional workers might be reduced or eliminated”. So the story then was not about creating additional jobs, but of losing them. For the other section of the industry, newspapers and publishing, the Plan quoted the conclusion reached by the 1962 Royal Commission on the Press, “that certain National Newspapers were then overstaffed by one-third in their production and distribution departments”. The long-drawn out and hopeless struggles of the miners and printers in the 1980s to save their jobs were a logical sequel to the 1965 Labour Plan.
Those who predict the permanent decline of the trade unions also have a lot to say about the anti-union legislation of the Thatcher government. They overlook the fact that, with one exception, the same and worse has happened before and the unions have known how to survive. The one exception is the Act which requires unions to have ballots for the election of officers and ballots for taking strike action. Along with the need for ballots before any strike settlement is agreed to, these are measures which the unions ought, in the interests of their members, to have adopted anyway.
Twice before in this century there have been trade union laws, or interpretations by the courts, which have led some observers to say that the unions were being destroyed for all time. In 1901 a court, contrary to what had been supposed to be the legal position, awarded damages of £23.000 to the Taff Vale Railway Company against the railway workers’ union which had been on strike. In relation to the price level then and now, this was equivalent to £800,000 at the present time. With legal costs as well, it would be over £1 million. The court decision hampered the unions but did not interrupt the steady growth of trade union membership. (The law was restored to its pre-1901 position by a deal between the unions and the Liberal government in 1906.)
Much the same happened with the Trade Unions and Trade Disputes Act of 1927 which, among other changes in the law, made all “sympathetic” strikes illegal. Membership of unions fell, but more owing to the depression than to the changes in the law; by 1936 membership was back to its pre-1927 level and the unions were succeeding in raising wages after the fall that had taken place before 1927.
The effect that trade union law and its changes have on the unions is not simple and straightforward. Sometimes the employers, who know that they have to live with the unions, themselves ignore or get round the law. The Heath government made the closed shop illegal but the big employers and the big unions tacitly agreed to carry on as before. Sometimes the government itself chooses to turn a blind eye to breaches of the law rather than stir up trouble it would prefer to avoid. During, and for some years after, World War II there were numerous strikes which were illegal but the government chose to ignore them. The 1875 Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act included the power to fine or imprison workers whose breach of contract was calculated to cause loss of life or damage to valuable property, or an interruption of the supply of gas or water. It was hardly ever used. When, in 1950, the Labour government prosecuted ten striking gas workers it was said to be the first time a particular clause in the 1875 Act had been used. They were sentenced to one month imprisonment, though on appeal this was altered to a fine of £50. To put the whole question of the law into perspective it has to be remembered that before 1824, when trade union organisations were wholly illegal, unions were nevertheless formed and were able to some extent to negotiate with employers.
Which brings us to the basic question — what are trade unions and why are they formed? Unions are an expression of “the class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce, and those who produce but do not possess”, between the workers and the capitalists. The class struggle is not something imagined or created by socialists but an inevitable outcome of the structure of capitalist society. It cannot be wished away by capitalist propaganda or by the good intentions of social reformers. It endures while capitalism endures and it will go on moving workers to organise to protect themselves against the pressures of the class which exploits them.