The state of the unions

On 28 March, more than a million local government workers went out on a one-day strike in defence of their pension rights. Within two weeks, the principal unions involved, Unison and the T&G, had negotiated away the key principle of the 85-year rule whereby workers could retire at 60 with full rights if they had worked 25 years. It was yet another example of how the trade union movement has acted to protect the Labour government against the working class. Robert Clough reports.

In two successive years, 2003 and 2004, trade unions had helped defeat motions at the Labour Party conference which opposed the occupation of Iraq, and whilst Blair may have had a hard time at the 2006 TUC Congress, this was merely because the trade union leadership saw him as a lost cause. Days lost through industrial action have been at a historical low, averaging 518,000 per annum during the life of the government, with a mere 157,000 days lost in 2005. Yet three years ago, leading SWP member Alex Callinicos told readers of the Australian socialist journal Links (January-April 2002 issue) that in Britain ‘a genuine “class struggle left wing” has emerged in the trade union bureaucracy that is prepared to oppose war on Iraq on a principled basis and to challenge Blair’s neo-liberal economic agenda’. The July-August 2002 issue of the SWP journal Socialist Review enthused at the ‘revival of class struggle’ over pay and privatisation and described ‘the election of left wing trade union leaders – the “awkward squad” as New Labour spin doctors like to call them’ as one indicator ‘of the growing radicalisation’.

However, within 18 months, Chris Harman had to acknowledge that for the second year running, the unions had bailed the Labour leadership out at the Labour Party conference over Iraq. ‘Not so awkward now’ was the headline in November 2004; in a lame attempt at explaining why the SWP had got it so badly wrong, Harman referred to Trotsky’s assessment of the total ‘ideological formlessness’ of the trade union left, adding a completely apolitical analysis of bureaucracy:

‘The bureaucracy as a whole is a hierarchical structure in which officials make careers out of bargaining with capital over the price paid for the labour power of the workers. The bargaining involves trying to organise workers and giving expression to their pressure for better lives. But it also involves channelling that pressure into negotiations within the system. The bureaucracy prioritises preserving the stability of union organisations over the conditions of the members it represents. The pressure from below can lead to militants from the left winning positions within the structure. But once there, they are subject to massive conservative counter-pressures to which they all too easily succumb.’

However, FRFI 174 (August-September 2003) rightly assessed the ‘awkward squad’ as being ‘all mouth and no trousers’ well before the SWP decided that they were ‘not so awkward’. The article showed that there was no evidence that ‘after years of lethargy and support for Labour’s reactionary policies, the trade unions [were] taking a new stand as fighting organisations of the working class.’ ‘Far from opposing the Labour Party, its vicious anti-working class and anti-trade union policies, the “new militants” want to save it by winning just enough concessions to maintain the votes of Labour supporters.’ The trade unions remained ‘tools of the privileged labour aristocracy’.

That the unions continue to organise overwhelmingly amongst the most privileged sections of the working class, particularly in the public sector has continued to be the case during the years of the Labour government. Trade union membership in the private sector continues to fall: in 1995 it was 3.14 million, now it is 2.72 million and union density is down to 17.1%. Trade union membership in the public sector has increased slightly, from 3.12 to 3.57 million since 1995, but because the number of public sector jobs has increased substantially under the Labour government, density has also fallen, from 61.4% to 58.4%. It is the increase in public sector employment that has stemmed the rate of loss of trade union members over the past ten years.

Four measures of privilege are educational qualification, job type, length of tenure and pay. Trade unions today organise mainly amongst the more highly educated, amongst professionals and managers, amongst those who have stable employment and amongst the better-paid sections of the working class.

Trade unionists and educational qualification

Trade unions tend to organise amongst the more highly qualified sections of the working class. Regardless of qualification there has been a steady decline in union density. However, the lower the qualification, the more rapid the decline. In 1995, there was a twelve-point difference in union density between workers with a degree and those with no qualification; by 2005 this had risen to 16 points. Today, more than a quarter of trade union members (27.9%) have a degree, and 43.1% of union members either have a degree or other higher education qualification. The figures for non-union members are 18.8% and 27.0% respectively, and for all workers, 21.4% and 31.4%. Trade union members are therefore significantly more educationally qualified therefore than the working population at large.

Qualification level

Union density in %




Degree or equivalent



Other higher education



A level or equivalent



GCSE or equivalent



Other qualifications



No qualifications



The jobs trade unionists do
The types of jobs that trade unionists undertake reflect their higher levels of qualification. 42.1% of trade unionists are now professionals or associate professionals, compared to 26.7% for the working population as a whole and 20.6% who are non-members. In 2005, a mere 8.8% of trade unionists were Process, Plant and Machine operatives. Most tellingly, in 1991, 34% of trade union members were either managers, professional or associate professionals; by 1995 this had risen to 41%. Now, 51.5% of trade unionists fall into these three categories. The more highly skilled the job, the more likely you are to be a trade unionist.

Trade unionism and length of tenure
Employment level is correlated with length of tenure. Almost half of union members (47.7%) have done more than 10 years’ service compared to 20.5% of non-union members. 67.6% have done five or more years’ service, compared to 39% of non-union members and 46.6% of all workers. The longer you have been in a job, the more likely you are to be a trade unionist.

Trade unionists and pay levels
The differentials in educational qualification, employment status and length of service have a further expression in levels of pay. Except for the top band, trade union density rises with wage levels. If you earn between £500 and £999 per week you are two and a half times more likely to be a trade unionist than if you earn less than £250 per week. £500 a week puts you in the top 30% of earners (the median wage in 2005 was £365 per week – median means 50% earned less than this figure, and 50% earned more. The average wage was £450 per week). The figures for women skew this result considerably: fewer than 20% of women earn more than £500 per week, and about half of those are trade unionists.

Weekly earnings

Union density in %

in main job






Less than £250


















£1,000 and above






By combining figures from the trade union membership survey and the annual pay survey, we can conclude that:
• There are three times as many women who earn less than £250 per week as there are who earn £500-999 per week. The numbers are about equal for women trade unionists;
• There are three times as many men earning £500-999 per week as there are earning less than £250 per week; the proportion amongst trade unionists rises to 6-7:1;
• Overall, there are about one million trade union members earning less than £250 per week, and more than two million earning between £500 and £999 per week, with the overwhelming bulk of the remainder, some 3-3.5 million, earning between £250 and £499 per week.

The fact that twice as many trade unionists earn more than £500 per week than earn less than £250 emphasises the point that the trade unions organise predominantly amongst the more affluent layers of the working class.

Trade unions as institutions
An article in The Observer, which attempted to account for the lack of resistance to the closure of the Peugeot factory in Ryton in April this year, made the point that trade union legislation is the most repressive in Europe and more repressive than it was in 1926. Yet this is only part of the truth. Trade unions are also wealthy institutions. The four largest, which include more than half the membership of the TUC, have gross assets totalling more than a third of a billion pounds and net assets only slightly less (see table).

The ten largest TUC-affiliated trade unions have gross assets worth just over half a billion pounds, and net assets of £415m. These assets include properties and shareholdings. Their general secretaries have substantial salary packages: in 2005, those for Amicus, the NASUWT, NUT, RCN, T&G and Unison were in excess of £100,000 per annum; the lowest paid is the PCSU’s general secretary whose package was £84,000. This is three-four times the average wage. Top pay for these posts three years ago was about £80,000.

Trade union



Gross Assets

Net assets


























These then are not organisations which will risk their financial position for the sake of their members particularly if it involved defying the most repressive trade union laws in Europe. The Observer recalled Tony Blair’s declaration that ‘There will be no return to secondary action, flying pickets, strikes without ballots, the closed shop and all the rest. British law [will be] the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world’. When Gate Gourmet workers were sacked in 2005 for protesting against the use of agency workers at lower wage rates, the T&G refused to endorse their strike action for fear of being sued by the company. 560 workers lost their jobs, and only 272 were re-instated. There has been no effective campaign against these laws.

In the 1970s, the annual average number of days lost through strikes was 12.9 million days, and even in the 1980s it was 7.2 million. By the 1990s it had fallen to 660,000 and on average has remained below this low level since. Despite this, the privileged sections of the working class have seen their wages increase in real terms at an unprecedented rate over this period: their gains have not been the result of any struggle but through British imperialism’s parasitical relationship with the rest of the world. The current anti-trade union laws have served a purpose however in ensuring that unions serve as a police force, taming outbreaks of working class indiscipline particularly amongst the poorest and oppressed sections. Gate Gourmet was one example; before then there were SkyChefs, the Liverpool dockers and the Tameside care workers. At each and every stage the unions have protected Labour and the interests of British imperialism because they have a real stake in the system, not because of their bureaucracy. The ‘awkward squad’ have made no difference to this, and Blair’s departure will not change matters.

FRFI 193 October/November 2006


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