On to: labour movement part 3
Part 2. The trade union movement from late 19th to mid-20th century. Points for discussion (see sm1labour3).
2.1 The growth of trade unions.
2.2 The unions in the 20th century: up to the 1970s
2.3 From the 1970s: the end of the labour movement? The labour movement today.
2.4 Unions and the labour movement today: points for discussion.
2.5 Conclusion - a final word on the nature of the labour movement:
2.1 The growth of trade unions:
The rise in union membership from the late 19th to the mid-20th century is impressive:
In 1892 there were 1.6 million trade union members, representing 10.6% of the workforce.
By 1950 there were 9.3 million members, representing 44 - 45% of the workforce.
Historians disagree over the importance of different factors that help to explain this dramatic rise:
The Marxist view:
Marxists stress there are underlying economic factors, and especially changes in technology – i.e. the work process, which are seen as “driving” other changes (making workers more radical and class-conscious as a reaction against the deskilling and alienation that such changes mostly produce). They also stress the importance of economic cycles (booms and slumps) which affect workers’ wages and consequently lead to rises and falls in militancy. Marxists generally tend to see the overall process as having been one of a steady development of a stronger workers’ movement. From such a point of view managers (and workers) are subject to material factors or economic laws, and have little autonomy. Many Marxists also tend to argue that the trade union leadership and bureaucracy are conservative and reformist, in contrast to the naturally more radical rank and file workers (e.g. Braverman, Hinton, Saville – details in MacIvor 2001).
This last point of view is opposed by right-wing theorists, who believe that workers and unions have too much power: their “restrictive practices” undermine productivity, and their activism is designed to push wages up. There is often talk of the “British disease” of industrial conflict and strikes amongst such writers (e.g. Phelps Brown, Corelli Barnett - details in MacIvor 2001).
Non-Marxists stress other factors helping or hindering the growth of the workers’ movement, e.g. the role of the state, and the general political “atmosphere” i.e. public opinion. They would also give both workers and managers a more significant role, less “determined” by economic or technological factors. Thus McIvor identifies bodies set up by employers (The Economic League for example) that gave employers mutual support, and that had a “symbiotic” relationship with workers’ organisations: there was (and still is) an interaction between workers and employers or managers: the relative power of both sides is always shifting and evolving. McIvor also argues that employers attitudes changed over the period, from outright hostility to workers (involving violent strike-breaking and “lockouts” up until the end of the 19th century) to one of accommodation, as employers realise that co-operation with workers can help the business run more smoothly!
Other influences on the development of the workers’ movement in this period include the two world wars: thus not only did war-work tend to increase workers’ sense of solidarity, but during war the state takes a more active, interventionist role in the economy. Bodies such as the Joint Industrial Councils and Wages Boards were established or extended, giving workers rights that safeguarded their wages and conditions (to some extent). It is important to note that up until the 1920s many of the gains made by workers could be reversed if circumstances changed and employers gained sufficient power to take back concessions made before. It is only, McIvor argues, when workers’ rights become enshrined in legislation – and especially when there are legally established procedures for industrial relations – that progress becomes more or less permanent, with the 1950s marking a watershed. (We have, of course seen, since the 1950s, how government can reverse trade union legislation!).
The Second World War in particular saw an increase in workers’ bargaining power, as so many men were away in the forces that labour was scarce, and employers had to be prepared to make concessions. It is interesting to note, as McIvor does, that two contrasting developments played a part in strengthening the labour movement: the growth of shop stewards and workplace committees (a reaction to the pressures of war-work) and the policies of E. Bevin, Minister of labour, who encouraged collective bargaining procedures.
2.2 The unions in the 20th century: Up to the 1970s:
During the years before and during World War I there was widespread unofficial action – much of it continuing the tradition mentioned earlier - what McIvor calls “primitive democracy” - where guilds and the early craft unions had more extensive powers than unions do today. (Before the war there had been an erosion of real wage levels, and during the war the pressure on workers was increased to meet the war effort). The “unofficial” methods used were however not simply defensive, nor just to improve a group of workers’ conditions, but they had a wider social or political dimension: e.g. output would be restricted in order to spread work (and avoid unemployment). There was also widespread use of the “go slow” or “ca’canny”, a method of direct action to protect workers against management offensive over pay, hours, or whatever.
Having said this, McIvor points out that there is an important distinction between matters concerning the labour contract (wages, hours, overtime, holidays etc) and those directly concerned with the methods of production: workers could have some influence on the former (though it was always possible to reverse this later), but employers have always resisted the influence of workers over the “core” aspects of the work process – that is they want to retain their “managerial prerogative”.
After the First World War great progress had been made by the labour movement, at three levels – industry-wide, workplace, and governmental:
- some 6/7 million workers (40% of the workforce) were covered by collective regulations at industry level, and much of industry had been
granted a 48 hour week (as against over 60 hours some years earlier)
- in mining, there was a nationally agreed 8 hour day and minimum wage
- the Trades Disputes Act of 1926 made strikes and picketing potentially more effective
- shop stewards and workplace committees were widespread – and in engineering in 1919 there was a national Shop Stewards Agreement.
At this stage there emerged what is known as the two systems of industrial relations: formal and informal. The formal system involved national agreements, whereas the informal operated at workplace level.
During the inter-war years, things got much more difficult for workers once more, especially with the build-up to the Depression of the late 20s and early 30s. Legislation was passed (especially after the 1926 General Strike, see below) which was anti-labour, such as the Trade Union and Trade Disputes Act of 1927, limiting unions’ scope for strikes etc. The Economic League, which blacklisted activist workers, was set up in 1926. Still, unions managed to mitigate the worst attempts to cut their wages etc, according to Clegg (1970). Moreover, despite the Depression, legislation was passed in the ‘30s which was beneficial to workers: the Factory Act 1937, Holidays With Pay Act 1939, showing that the labour movement was still having an effect despite worsening circumstances.
The main expansion of the trade union movement occurred during the 1940s – factors contributing being: full employment, more worker-friendly public opinion (and in government, through Bevin), growing “revulsion against management” (MacIvor) during the war – so that there was a growth of joint production committees, and of union membership:
- in 1939 there were 6.3 million members, i.e. 32% of the workforce
- in 1950: 9.3 million, i.e. 45%.
With the Labour landslide election victory of 1945, legislation was enacted which helped the unions, the welfare state provided a “social wage” (with benefits etc), and the British Employers’ Federation were regarded as pretty much equal partners with the TUC by the government. By 1950, according to MacIvor, nearly all low-paid sectors of workers were subject to state-sponsored collective bargaining and wage regulation, and only 2 million workers (10% of the workforce) were not protected in some way. It is even possible to argue (Hinton 1994 – details in MacIvor 2001) that workers were getting a say in production matters, and not just in the labour contract.
Such was the changed atmosphere by 1950 that management now recognised that so-called “restrictive practices” actually could serve useful purposes. For example, in printing there were bans on piecework, in the building industry there was opposition to bonus payments (“merit money”), there were go-slows (“stints”) in mining, and rules about seniority for promotion in the iron and steel industry. These practices could be seen as ways of protecting workers’ skills (against overstrain and managerial favouritism), and regulating the labour market (Zweig 1951). As Zweig put it, in 1951:
“Most employers state that the restrictive spirit harms more than restrictive rules… [and that] the smooth running of industry depends on [workers’] goodwill and the spirit of co-operation.” (Quoted in MacIvor op cit)
All this shows, as MacIvor says:
- that there was a major change in the balance of power between workers and employers over the period;
- that by mid-20th century employers found trade unions useful and wanted to co-operate with them (it is often forgotten that the “closed shop” – 100% union membership in a factory – was often agreed by the employer and could be useful to them, since all workers would be covered by any agreements and “minority trouble-makers” would be less of a problem!);
- the labour movement made significant gains: wages had improved dramatically in real terms (in 1950 wages were three times what they were in 1880);
- given the raised school-leaving age and earlier retirement, workers now spent less of their lives at work;
- the working week had been reduced from 60 hours in mid-19th century to around 45 hours by 1950
- that this had been brought about by the struggles of the labour movement, through a mixture of advances and setbacks;
- that in a sense, workers had contributed to what MacIvor calls a “reformed and humanised capitalism”.
Having said this, it must be remembered, he says, that:
- there were still sectors of work, especially clerical, office and agricultural, where unions had little presence;
- these were often areas where most of the workforce were women, indicating the prevalence of patriarchal attitudes in unions;
- radical workers’ demands for real workers control had not been realised – nationalisation of industry was not accompanied by wide
involvement of workers at board level (some would argue that most workers were not interested in such powers anyway e.g. Hinton 1994). Also the TUC has become distinctly reformist;
- management still is unwilling to give up its prerogative over central aspects of the labour process;
- most work has become narrower in focus, more closely supervised, and more intense, leading to more mental stress (whilst being safer in terms of accidents etc) – and industrial relations has become depersonalised (no direct contact with the foreman, but instead an increased role for junior/middle managers etc). All of this provided grounds for worker dissatisfaction still, of course!
Many writers and
journalists have declared that the trade union or labour movement is defunct: especially
since the triumph of Thatcherism in the 1970s, the defeat of the miners in the
‘80s, and the fall of the Soviet Union (1989), and the disintegration of the
communist bloc. More sweepingly it is also said that socialism is dead. In
In the 1970s, the government was very concerned about the growing militancy of the trade unions, and this became a more serious problem with the economic crisis following the Middle East War of 1973, and the subsequent rise in oil prices. The British economy was in difficulties: the government had to go to the IMF for a loan, and – of course – conditions were attached, including restricting public sector wages and public expenditure generally. Labour MP Barbara Castle is remembered for her plans ‘In Place of Strife’ – which many on the left saw as an attack on the unions – although her proposals were watered down. The Labour government was defeated in 1970, faced by inflation, as well as industrial unrest.
In 1971 the Industrial Relations Act was passed by the Heath government which limited ‘wildcat strikes’, imposed limits on what was defined as a legitimate strike, and which established the National Industrial Relations Court, giving it the power to grant injunctions preventing strikes. The belief that ‘unions have too much power’ was widespread (and reinforced by the media).
In fact there is
still bitter controversy over the effect of union activism in the late ‘70s:
the unions have retained considerable hostility to both Barbara Castle and the
Heath government. On the other hand, Professor Keith Ewing (cited by Anne
Perkins - author of A Very British Strike, Macmillan 2006 - in the Guardian
In 1973, three building workers including Ricky Tomlinson (now an actor) were charged with conspiracy, for picketing. They became known as the Shrewsbury Three – they served sentences of up to three years.
From 1974 power workers and miners were on strike, and the Heath government brought in the ‘three day week’ to save on electricity – the government tried to fight an election on the slogan ‘who governs Britain?’, but lost.
Another notable dispute in the ‘70s was at Grunwick, where photo-processors fought for union recognition.
After the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978 – 9) when public sector workers were on strike, resisting the Callaghan government’s restrictions on their wage rises (as a means of controlling inflation), and then the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979, laws were passed which further restricted the unions in their ability to strike: secondary action was outlawed, picketing was restricted, and ballots were established (with – as we have seen recently – stringent conditions attached to what is accepted as a proper ballot). Her government’s aim was to ‘roll back the state’ and increase the extent to which private enterprise played a part in the economy. The unions were seen as a barrier to this, and she had no hesitation in tackling them head-on. It is said that she remembered her predecessor Ted Heath having to give in to the miners and resolved never to do the same.
In 1984 the NUM called a national strike when Mrs Thatcher announced the closure of Cortonwood Colliery in
This long and
bitter dispute ended (in one sense) one year later, with the defeat of the
miners, and the closure of many pits. However, the history of the event is
still disputed! The miners’ leader, Hugh Scargill, was a controversial figure:
seen by some as a potential saviour of the mining industry, and by others as a
manipulative Leninist whose obstinacy and lack of democratic accountability
only prolonged (or even led to the failure of) the dispute. It is argued that
he refused to hold a national ballot, and held regional ones – but then tried
to impose the pro-strike stance on those regions who had voted against (letter,
Lazenby also argues that there was widespread support from
other sectors of the working class (rail workers who refused to transport coal)
– and the threat to whole communities based on mining drew a good deal of
support from the public. But there was also much hostility from the media...
Miners were themselves divided: a break-away union was set up (the Union of
Democratic Mineworkers) which opposed the strike; some say this was as a result
of Scargill’s leadership, others that the new union was set up by the
government of Mrs Thatcher! Either way, their pits were closed down eventually
too! The ‘Battle of Orgreave’, when a mass picket
(10,000 miners, with 8,000 police on duty) was attacked by police on horseback,
is also remembered either as showing how violent the police could be, or how
violent the demonstrating miners were! (See New Statesman,
A final irony of all this is that now (1st decade of the 21st century) we are importing coal into the UK – 4.3 mn tonnes in 2007, at a cost of £2 bn – and we have lost out on the opportunity to develop clean coal technology by closing down so many mines.
Another dramatic dispute, that led to defeat and left a legacy of bitterness, took place in 1986 when Rupert Murdoch wanted to reduce the number of printers he employed, by bringing in new technology. He eventually decided to move his four newspapers to Wapping, where computerised equipment would save him many jobs – the dispute was long-running, but in the end the unions could not stop Murdoch. Most observers, and some in the unions, agree that the print unions had become inflexible, over-manned, and resistant to any change (Sean French, New Statesman 11th Sep 2006: ‘The print unions were greedy bullies – I know because I worked with them – and they were forcing the industry to stay in the medieval age’ but - he goes on - when the journalists had the power to stop Murdoch they ‘blew it completely. Now he rules the world’). On the other hand, Murdoch was undoubtedly devious and determined – he divided the journalists against the printers, and he secretly planned his move to Wapping over years.
After these disputes union membership began to fall – from around 13 million to half that figure by the turn of the century. And yet there have been sings more recently of a revival in union activity, especially given that attacks on the public sector (1993 saw the formation of Unison), and the tendency of management, once gain, to believe that it has the right to make workers redundant as it sees fit.
2.4 Unions and the labour movement today: points for discussion:
Of course, (as
Anne Perkins says, loc cit) the economic and
industrial scene today is very different to what it was at the beginning of the
20th century: workers’ pay and standard of living is better, and
there are – apart from the state – hardly any mass employers in the
But of course, many of the issues raised by the labour movement are still alive, especially the “bread and butter issues” such as health and safety, fair pay, differentials, and issues concerning the labour contract.
With regard to
recent trade union activity and membership in the
- university lecturers protesting about the way that student numbers have increased, whilst staffing and other resources to teach them have shrunk;
- in the NHS there has been widespread discontent about the constant re-organisation of the Health Service, as well as about creeping privatisation;
- railway workers (and others, especially in the public sector) have taken action over inadequate pension schemes;
- in April 2006 there was an unofficial walkout at the
Vauxhall plant at
- a campaign is launched for a trade-union freedom bill…
On the other
hand, as Anne Perkins argues: when it was announced that the Peugeot factory at
The grass-roots labour movement and trade unions certainly seem less powerful today. To take one recent dispute: in 2005, 813 workers at Gate Gourmet (supplying airline meals) were sacked. This was followed by an illegal strike, and when the TGWU did get involved, the dispute ended with only 272 workers re-instated. Moreover, British workers change jobs more often than their European counterparts, and although here are fewer days lost to strikes, there has been an increase in working days lost through absenteeism.
Note that if we look world-wide, rather than just in
Some commentators argue that any signs of activity in unions these days are in the “old economy” i.e. previously state-owned industries such as the Post Office, Railways and the public sector (e.g. David Cautes of the Work Foundation, cited by Perkins). It is also said that the focus of trade union protest these days has shifted: now it is seen as important to oppose the fragmented, atomised workplaces, and the “flexible workforce” (which means that workers are expected to be “easy-come, easy-go”). Other current issues include more family-friendly working hours and – still! – equal pay. In 2002 Bob Crow argued that rail-workers were trying to counter the inequalities produced by the privatisations of the ‘90s; also, train drivers had become scarce and were therefore able to command higher wages.
Recent figures on the state of the unions show: there are 66 TUC affiliated unions, covering 7 million members (half what it was in 1980) or a quarter of those in work. In the last few years (since 2000) overall membership had been either static or rising, whereas it fell every year between 1979 and 1997.
according to Prof. David Metcalf (quoted by Polly Toynbee, Guardian,
Finally, it is
important to compare British industrial relations laws (especially as modified
by the Blair government) with other countries’ laws, and with international
standards: John Hendy QC, visiting Professor in the
- the ILO criticised
- the Council of Europe declared in November 2002 that “the scope for workers to defend their interests through lawful collective action is ..
excessively circumscribed in the
consequences of taking unlawful action are serious
- the UN has (in 1997) criticised the “failure to incorporate the right to strike into [British] law [which] constitutes a breach of Article 8 of the
Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
2.5 Conclusion - a final word on the nature of the labour movement:
To re-iterate: the main points I wish to make here concern:
1. the struggle that accompanied the rise of the labour movement, and
2. that trade unions are special kinds of collective organisation (even the law recognises this now!) and which therefore, in my view, need special regard when applying the law.
To clarify this last point: consider the use of the law to outlaw strikes. It is worth going back to the basic meaning of a right to “combine”: surely it is a basic right in a democracy to join with others for common goals? Any law which restricted this activity would have to say why unions are different from any other organisations that people are free to join, such as clubs or religious organisations.
Or, if we think about what is meant by right to “strike”: if I am not allowed under any circumstances to refuse to work for someone, what is the difference between this and slavery? Employers, in my view, already have considerably more power than their employees – the “managerial prerogative”, or “right to manage” means that decisions about the most significant aspect of a business’s activity are not made by the workers. The right to strike is recognised since it gives back some power to the employees, who otherwise would have none!
It also seems wrong to me that even to this day the right to strike in sympathy with other workers is not recognised as lawful: trade unions group workers according to their type of work, but all workers have in common the fact that they are workers! One group of workers may well find themselves in a position of conflict where the power of their employers is such that they can do little to help themselves. Solidarity amongst workers is a basic principle of the labour movement: hence the close association between the labour movement and socialist ideologies. To restrict workers to pursuing only goals that are directly to do with their own work is to try to compel workers to act on the self-interested and competitive principles that underlie the capitalist system.
Two recent newspaper articles that illustrate (i) the totally different world-views of employers and workers, and (ii) the incredible gap that has opened up in earnings between executives and the average worker:
(i) Stephen Glaister,
director of the RAC Foundation, and a former TfL
board member said, concerning staff cuts: ‘There is probably scope to reduce
the cost of operations at London Underground because it is heavily unionised
and has not been subject to competitive pressures.’ How would a union member or
official put this? (Quoted by Dan Milmo,
Guardian Transport correspondent,
(ii) (from Andrew Clark, Guardian 1st Sep 2010): a report by
the Institute for Policy Studies shows that the average leader of a Standard
& Poor 500 company in the