British trade unions – no stomach for a fight

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With unemployment approaching 2.5 million for the first time in more than ten years, there are few signs of serious trade union resistance. They have refused to fight the Tory anti-trade union laws that Labour kept on the statute books and remain committed to supporting the Labour Party, accounting for about 75% of its funding.

Trade unions continue to form larger and larger monopolies: the combined membership of the two largest TUC-affiliates – Unite and Unison – stands at 3.3 million, over half of TUC membership. These institutions have immense wealth: in 2008, the ten largest TUC-affiliated unions had an annual income of £600m and gross assets in shares and property worth £614m (up over £100m since 2005). Their leadership continues to be paid extravagantly: in 2007, eight general secretaries from the ten largest TUC-affiliated unions earned more than £100,000. Many general secretaries of smaller trade unions also earn more than £100,000: Brian Caton of the POA, for instance, was on £120,000 including benefits. They have no intention of jeopardising such wealth or position.

The opportunist left say the trade unions represent the mass of the working class. In fact they continue to organise preferentially amongst a narrow section of the working class, mainly better-off workers in the public sector. By the end of 2007:

• 58.6% of trade unionists worked in the public sector compared to 27.2% of all employees.

• More than half of trade unionists, 52.7%, were either managers, professionals or associate professionals (41.9% for all employees).

• 45.7% of trade unionists had a degree or other higher education qualification compared to 33.9% of all employees.

At the end of 2007, when the median wage for full-time workers was £457 per week, approximately 4.5 million, or 60% of all trade unionists, were earning between £500 and £999 per week. This was nearly ten times the number of trade unionists in full-time employment who were earning less than £250 per week.

The number of days lost through industrial action in 2009, at 437,000, is the third lowest figure since records began over 120 years ago; the average has been 600,000 since 1997.

Trade unions are no longer fighting organisations of the working class and they will remain that way until they break with Labour.

FRFI 214 April / May 2010