‘Left-wing’ trade unions: all mouth and no trousers

FRFI 174 August / September 2003

In July, the RMT union conference voted to cut contributions to the Labour Party and allow branches to affiliate to other parties. Its general secretary, Bob Crow, who branded the Labour Cabinet as ‘war criminals’, predicted the union could disaffiliate from Labour within five years. Such is the anger among firefighters that if their union, the FBU, had held a conference this year there would have been strong calls for disaffiliation. The broadcasting union Bectu is already balloting members on such a move. Several of the biggest unions, including TGWU, UNISON, GMB and ASLEF, have agreed to review their Labour Party links and funding. The media talk of a new breed of left-wing trade union leaders, ‘the awkward squad’, who have captured the leadership in these and other unions, threatening a new age of militancy and conflict with the Labour government. These unions have called a ‘council of war’ for the autumn. The TUC general secretary, Brendan Barber, a Blair supporter, has not been invited.

But what evidence is there that, after years of lethargy and support for Labour’s reactionary policies, the trade unions are taking a new stand as fighting organisations of the working class? At its peak in 1979 union membership was more than 13 million. By 1995 it had fallen to 7.3 million and has stagnated at around this level ever since. However, the proportion of employees in trade unions, (union density), has continued to fall from 27.1% in 2000 to 26.6% last year. Union density remained highest among professionals and associated professional and technical staff at 48% and 42% respectively. Those with the highest educational qualifications were also more likely to be in a union. Of those with a degree or equivalent 37% were in unions, as were 44% of those with another higher educational qualification, unchanged from 1999. Within the various spheres of work, union density was highest among public administrators at 59% and education workers at 53%. Together with health workers these three categories accounted for almost half of all trade union members. At the other end of the scale, union density among those with GCSE qualifications or less was around 25%. Manufacturing, which accounted for just 16% of all union members, had a union density of 27%. For sales and customer service staff union density was 13% and among workers in hotels and restaurants just 5%. Whereas around 35% of all workers over 30 years of age were in trade unions this fell to 19% for the 20-29 age group and to just 5% for the under 20s; a further deterioration in figures for young workers since 1999. Workers who have been in post for less than a year (12%) or between one year and two (16%) are also much less likely to be in a union, as are part-time workers (20%) and those in smaller work places of fewer than 25 employees (16%). Union density in the public sector is around 60% while that in the private sector is less than 20%. These figures demonstrate that the unions organise mainly the professional, better-off and white collar workers, especially those working in the public sector.

On the other hand, workers with few qualifications, the poorest section of the working class, are largely ignored by the unions. This is especially true of those working in new private service industries where pay and conditions are appalling and job security virtually non-existent. If anything, this situation has worsened over the past few years and it seems set to continue. The two unions reporting the greatest increases in membership last year were the National Union of Teachers (9.8%) and the Public and Civil Servants Union (5.2%).

There is no evidence, then, that the unions have made a concerted effort to increase membership over the past few years and in particular to try and organise the poorest, most oppressed sections of the working class. Yet an interim report for the Leverhulme Trust on the Future of Unions in Modern Britain says there are around three million workers in non-unionised workplaces who want to join trade unions and another three million already covered by union collective agreements, who could join if they felt there would be some benefit. The report points out, though, that unions have allowed the 10% wage premium that union membership traditionally brought to be almost completely lost and criticises the unions for having no clear strategy or organisation for increasing membership.

As another indicator of union activity in pursuit of their members’ interests, we could look at the number of working days lost through strike action. There has been some improvement in the last few years from the all-time lows of the late 1990s. In both 2000 and 2001 there were about half a million days lost through strike action. This rose to 1.3 million days in 2002. However, even this amounts to just one in six union members taking just one day’s action during the year and needs to be set against the average working days lost each year in the 1970s of 12.7 million and in the 1980s of 7.2 million. Furthermore, figures for the first four months of this year are well down on the previous two years.

Instead of fighting for the fundamental interests of the working class, the unions have become part of the corporate establishment, offering all sorts of sideline perks such as credit cards, holiday discounts and private health schemes and being run like businesses. In 2001/2 their total income increased by 5.2% to £825.5 million, which included nearly £40 million of investment income. This was £14 million more than they spent, leaving them with total funds of £912.1 million. Their assets amounted to over £1.1 billion, including investments of £443.1 million. Big business indeed, and just like big businesses the unions have been merging. The Leverhulme Report points out, these mergers have been about ‘market share unionism’ rather than achieving economy of scale to release resources for organising.

It should not surprise us then to find that union leaders pay themselves fat cat salaries. According to the yearly reports submitted between October 2001 and September 2002, for example, the leader of ASLEF took a wages and benefits package of £72,605, the leader of UNISON, took £84,170 and the leader of the AEEU took £109,768. Such typical rewards will no doubt be taken up by all the so-called new breed of union leaders. Can we seriously expect people enjoying such lifestyles to know or care much about those workers struggling to survive on the minimum wage? Can we seriously expect them to lead a fight against a Labour government that protects and extends the imperialist system of exploitation that makes such privileges possible?

At a time when millions of trade union members face poverty pay, growing job insecurity, anxiety over pensions, anger at fat cat salaries, fears about privatisation and the longest working hours in Europe, it would be surprising if these union leaders hadn’t come up with some anti-Blair, anti-New Labour rhetoric. They were hardly likely to be elected if they didn’t, as Jack Dromey (husband of Harriet Harman), Blair’s favoured candidate for the TGWU job, found out to his cost. In fact, with the possible exception of Bob Crow, all these members of the so-called ‘awkward squad’ favour retaining close ties with the Labour Party. Kevin Curran of the GMB said, ‘It’s not about walking away from the Party, it’s about staying in’. At his union conference in June, UNISON leader Dave Prentiss said, ‘We already have a trade union party. It’s called the Labour Party...we stay within – fully paid up members’. Derek Simpson of Amicus is solidly behind the link with Labour. Mick Rix of ASLEF actually wants to increase Labour Party contributions. The new leader of TGWU, Tony Woodley, bizarrely described cutting links with Labour as ‘a right-wing agenda’ and, in a veiled attack on Crow, said, ‘It is time to reclaim our party – not walk away from it, as a few on the fringes would argue’.

At the beginning of July several of these union leaders teamed up with members of the Labour Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) of MPs for a ‘Save Our Party’ conference. The two groups agreed to work together to produce an ‘alternative manifesto’ and lobby the Labour government. As SCG chairman John McDonnell MP said, ‘Unless there is a radical redirection of the government’s approach and policies, the Labour Party is at real risk of losing the next election’.

This then is the real intent behind the so-called new militancy. 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 key votes for Labour to retain are those of the professional and skilled middle and upper working class, the labour aristocracy, precisely the sector that dominates and is best served by the trade unions. As for the millions of the poorest working class people who choose not to vote for Labour and are excluded from the unions they are dismissed out of hand, as in this contemptuous remark by Billy Hayes, leader of the Communications Workers Union (CWU) and another of the ‘new militants’: ‘The weakness of Blairism today shows there is the chance for change if trade unionists play their part in shaping the Labour Party we need. You have to recognise that most working class people, at least those who are politically interested, see Labour as in some sense their party’. Hayes has, no doubt, inherited the last reported pay and benefits package for the leader of the CWU of £99,642 a year.

The one way for unions to gain real clout and become fighting organisations is to organise those sections of the working class that are presently excluded, the millions of poor workers who have little to lose and everything to fight for. This they resolutely refuse to do. Whether or not they are led by ‘new militants’ and ‘the awkward squad’, the unions remain tools of the privileged labour aristocracy. The growing anger and desperation of other workers who are inside the unions will sooner or later erupt into action but when it does they must be prepared, as has happened so often before, to be betrayed by their leaders.

Jim Craven