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Issue 39, June 1999

The State of the Unions

    The Amalgamated Engineers and Electricians Union (AEEU)
    The Communications Workers Union (CWU)
    The National Union of Teachers (NUT)
    Public and Commercial Services (PCS)
    Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT)
    The Transport and General Workers Union (T&G)

As the union conference season gets underway, BILL MULLINS looks at the situation facing union activists two years into the New Labour government.

FOUR HUNDRED AND fifty workers at a Hull gas-fired power station construction site recently took strike action over the lack of basic on-site health and safety. Despite calls by union officials not to have 'too many pickets on the gates', the majority of strikers turned up each morning to picket. There was little the police or managers could do as main road traffic was brought to a halt and most lorry drivers respected the picket line. The shop stewards, both of whom were Socialist Party members, called on the workers to keep up the strike until they won.

The managers were terrified of this demonstration of union power and no doubt had nightmares about the return of the 'bad old days'. But what it really demonstrated is that workers who are confident, (and if you are working on a massive construction site with deadlines to meet then this certainly helps) will instinctively take action no matter what the anti-union laws say about its 'illegality'. Other groups of workers, though, are not in this position. The primary issue for the British working class is one of confidence in their ability to fight back against a rapacious capitalist class.

Historically the working class in Britain has consistently demonstrated a high level of trade union consciousness, and for millions of workers the unions remain the last means of defence against the dictatorship of the bosses on the shop floor. But in the '24-hour society' of modern Britain, workers are increasingly finding themselves at the sharp end of managements drive to get the most they can whilst paying their workers as little as possible.

The 'deregulated labour market' means that the working class in Britain are being forced to work longer hours with less holidays than most other West European countries. Over one million workers are now forced to take a second job to make ends meet. In the NHS, for example, 20% of nurses have a second job, while 35,000 junior doctors are threatening to take strike action because the New Labour government wants to increase their hours to 65 per week. A TUC survey revealed that over five million workers, mainly in non-union workplaces, are regularly bullied by their managers and supervisors, sometimes physically.

The arbitration and conciliation service (ACAS) report that their services are being inundated with cases of unfair dismissals, discrimination and unpaid wages. Last year enquiries were up 15% to 508,000 and individual cases dealt with were up 6% to 114,000. Workers without union protection have been forced to turn to organisations like ACAS because they have nowhere else to go.

  Membership of the unions has declined over the last 20 years from an all-time high of 13 million in 1979 to 7.1 million today, the lowest since 1944. Only in the last two years has there been a slight increase of 4,000. According to the latest official labour force survey union density as a proportion of the working population now stands at 30%, with 60% of public sector workers in unions but only 19% of private sector workers.

The picture varies - for example, of the 20 biggest unions eleven lost members last year whilst six gained in membership. Teachers unions saw the biggest growth, no doubt as a result of the incessant attacks on them by the government and the subsequent feeling of insecurity engendered.

The recently published government Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS) revealed how the number of shop stewards has significantly declined. In 1984 there were 335,000 shop stewards but now this has fallen to 218,000, a drop of 35%. This is not only a quantitative change but also a qualitative one as well. Previously well-organised workplaces such as the car factories have seen their shop stewards base fall, and therefore the level of shop-floor organisation. But while most of the reduction in union membership and shop stewards is undoubtedly a result of the massive de-industrialisation of Britain over the last two decades, it is also an indication of the fall in consciousness amongst a layer of workers, particularly amongst young people. On the other hand, TUC surveys have also revealed that five million non-union workers would join a union if they were given a chance.

Many heroic struggles have taken place over the last period but they have usually been confined to the immediate workforce due to the illegality of organising sympathy action. The Liverpool dockers, the Tameside care-workers, the Critchley workers - to name but some of them - have all had the characteristic of being long drawn-out affairs which have attracted the tremendous sympathy and moral support of many workers but little in the way of physical solidarity action.

But as the Hull power station construction strike demonstrates, if workers feel themselves to be in a powerful economic position then they will take the most decisive action. Equally important are the issues themselves. Strikes over health and safety often flare-up with little regard for the niceties of the law - if you feel your life is threatened at work, then you will walk out and talk about it afterwards. This was the case with the 500 Jubilee Line electricians in London when they walked off the job because the management had failed to put adequate emergency warning systems underground.

  Overall, however, days lost in strikes are at the lowest level since records began in 1891. In 1997 255,000 days were lost in strike action compared, for example, to 29 million days in 1979. While there was a slight increase in 1998 to 277,000 days lost, the biggest factor still is the existence of anti-union laws. To organise a strike ballot now involves more hurdles than the grand national.

The government's new legislation, of which the union leaders expect big things, is being promoted as the means to end the fall in membership, particularly its provisions for trade union recognition. Union officials estimate that there are at least 100 non-union firms with 45,000 workers where unions have 50% or more of the workforce already in trade union membership, which would give them the automatic right of recognition under the new legislation.

Aside from these cases, however, under the new law unions can have recognition only if they can demonstrate that there is support for the union. Forty per cent of the eligible workforce must then vote yes in a subsequent ballot (in other words every abstention is counted as a vote against the union). And this only applies to companies with 20 or more workers. USDAW, the shop workers union, says that this will make it impossible for them to ever win a ballot, given the scattered nature of their industry.

In the USA, which is the model for the proposed British laws, the employers have spent millions in employing 'union-buster' lawyers to advise companies on how to harass and intimidate workers into voting no to the union. The employers can legally delay the ballot for months and use the period to propagandise against the union, weeding out the militants and scaring the rest of the workforce into submission. The unions have no rights to call meetings of the workforce on the premises during the pre-ballot period, for example, whilst of course the bosses have a free hand.

The attitude of the union tops has been to bewail the decline in union membership and influence but they are unable to put forward a strategy to reverse it. The Blairite section of the union leadership is probably now in the majority, with the same agenda as New Labour of seeking to turn the unions into tame partners of the bosses. But there is no sharp ideological divide between this layer and the 'old Labour' trade union leaders on the fundamental issues. Neither side believes in anything but the capitalist market to resolve the problems of their members for decent jobs and conditions. Without massive pressure from their members the union leaders will still compromise with the bosses rather than lead effective struggles. It is the job of conscious socialists in the unions to organise that pressure with a fighting programme to defend union democracy and basic union rights.

  top     The Amalgamated Engineers and Electricians Union (AEEU)

IN A COMPLETE break with past tradition the leadership are pushing through proposals to do away with the election of officials. The contraction of its membership (720,000 compared to a combined AUEW and EEPTU membership of over 1.3 million in the 1970s) led to layoffs amongst its officials. But there was outrage when it became known that the national officials who were stepping down were being given 'golden hampers' of 500,000 or more.

The left has traditionally been grouped around the Engineering Gazette, a more open left than for example the old style TGWU broad left. Of the union's 48 national committee seats, 17 are from the left, but now this structure itself is under threat. More and more power will be concentrated in the hands of three national officers, all of whom are from the old electricians side of the union.

top     The Communications Workers Union (CWU)

THE CWU (274,000 members) was the result of a merger between the NCU (telecommunications) and UCW (postal) unions a few years ago. Forty per cent of all strikes over the recent period in the workforce as a whole have been in the post office - often starting as unofficial action which in turn led to national official strikes.

The new general secretary, Hodgson, has brought forward plans which will undermine democratic control of the union by the members. These proposals have been sneaked in on the back of the widespread desire to end the veto power of the clerical section in the union and comes on top of his gagging of left NEC members from speaking on public platforms (for example, at conference fringe meetings), unless it is line with union policy. He is also proposing to outlaw branches campaigning for slates of candidates in union elections and to move to biennial conferences and NEC elections. The CWU Broad Left are organising a fight back to defend democracy and oppose the right's plans. In recent elections the left increased its position on the NEC with the re-election of a Socialist Party member along with another newly-elected member of the SP.

top     The National Union of Teachers (NUT)

BLAIR'S GOVERNMENT IS taking on the teachers with its green paper proposals to introduce performance-related pay. Linking pupils' exam results to teachers' pay is a throwback to Victorian times. The NUT (192,000 members) was formed in the last century precisely to fight against performance related pay.

This attack coincided with the left putting forward Christine Blower as candidate in the forthcoming general secretary election, and April's NUT conference was all set to see a confrontation between the left and the right over how to resist the government's attacks. But because of the forthcoming election the incumbent general secretary Doug McAvoy and the right-wing NEC majority supported the call for a one-day strike against the green paper. In response the government seems to have pulled back from immediately implementing their proposals, allowing the right wing, if re-elected, to seek to compromise later on.

The election of three members of the Socialist Party to the NEC has undoubtedly stiffened up the left on that body, who are within an ace of gaining the majority.

top     Public and Commercial Services (PCS)

THE PCS (265,000 members) is the result of a merger of the CPSA and PTC civil service unions. The broad left organisation 'Left Unity', of which the Socialist Party was the main component in the old CPSA union, opposed this merger because it did not contain the necessary democratic safeguards, including annual conferences and annual elections of the national executive committee (NEC). The consequences of this soon became apparent after the first national conference in November, when the new NEC announced a membership referendum to overturn the left policies adopted by the conference (which, of course, is now every two years, along with the election of the NEC).

The new Blairite leaders of PCS seek to reach an accommodation with the employers, to divest the union of any policy that would bring it into collision with the government. The old CPSA leadership of Barry Reamsbottom represented an old-style Tory leadership, often linked with all sorts of unsavoury organisations. The PTC leaders, in contrast, were a bit more sophisticated in their opposition to left ideas, as the tactic of organising a referendum demonstrates. Nevertheless the fact that they are challenging some of the socialist policies adopted by conference gives the left an opportunity to take their policies out to a wider audience than just conference delegates.

top     Rail and Maritime Transport (RMT)

THE RMT (56,000 members) is probably the most left-wing of the biggest 20 unions in Britain, but it contains many contradictions. Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party (SLP) has gained a certain influence at the top of the union, holding the majority of the rail-side NEC seats. In the recent general secretary elections the left candidate Greg Tucker (not an SLP member) polled 4,535 votes to the incumbent Jimmy Knapp's 8,776, a creditable result. The more obvious candidate for the left, however, would have been Bob Crow, an SLP member and the assistant general secretary, but he seems to be waiting for Knapp's retirement rather than taking him on head on.

  top     The Transport and General Workers Union (T&G)

THE RECENT ELECTION of Margaret Prosser as the assistant general secretary of the T&G (881,000 members) was a blow to the newly-emerged more open broad left. Prosser defeated Fred Higgs, the left-backed national chemicals trade group secretary, by 50,000 votes to 39,000, and now a new wave of bans and proscriptions has opened up. The T&G Campaign for a Democratic Union (CDU), supported by the ex-Liverpool dockers and the Socialist Party, was declared unconstitutional at the January general executive committee.

The union is going through a major restructuring at the moment, primarily due to the decline in the manufacturing sector of the economy where traditionally it had its biggest base. From its present eight trade groups it is being re-organised into four national industrial sectors. These bodies will meet only once every two years, whilst the main conference will continue to meet biennially. This is now one of the favoured methods of the right in all unions in their suppression of members' rights.

top     UNISON

FIVE YEARS AGO the public service unions NALGO, NUPE and COHSE merged to form the biggest union in Britain, UNISON (1.3 million members). There was general agreement on the left to support the merger but not at any price - the fundamental position was that lay member democracy had to be maintained and developed. Now it seems as if the pendulum is swinging towards the dominance of the full-time officials. This is primarily because most of what happens in the union takes place over the heads of the membership. Without a mass movement of struggle then this is difficult to counter-act. Though there have been many localised struggles, in the councils and the NHS, this has not happened on a national scale. The last series of national strikes took place in the 1980s. Since the merger the left, led by Socialist Party members working through the Campaign for a Fighting Democratic Unison (CFDU), have attempted to turn the union in a more militant direction. But at the 1998 conference the leadership were able to win a 60%/40% majority to 'outlaw' the CFDU, at least as far as the CFDU getting direct financial support from union branches. But even after this setback the CFDU had a notable success in forcing the leadership to organise a national demonstration this April against the government's minimum wage rate of 3.60 an hour.

On the back of the ban of the CFDU, the leadership are pressing for new rules forbidding union branches coming together to organise campaigns without the permission of the leadership. These proposals have now gone out to consultation. The full-time officials have also closed down left branches (the latest being Birmingham council UNISON, the biggest branch in the union with 18,000 members, and Sheffield) and annulled elections when the left has won. They are disciplining individual left union activists and generally trying to clamp down on the left before any future movement of the members over wages, jobs and conditions.

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