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Can UK trade unions recover their post-war power?

Recent strikes and the pay offers that followed have led to a renewed focus on what trade unions can achieve. There has been much invocation of their post-war influence. But recovering that power would require significant changes in UK politics, the law and how unions themselves work.

Since the summer of 2022, strikes have affected an array of public services in the UK. Despite employer resistance, these are showing signs of success. Nurses have now been offered a 5% pay rise plus a one-off 2% bonus, Network Rail staff have accepted up to 14% and Abellio’s London bus drivers have won 18%.

Newspapers have lambasted union leaders as ‘barons’, who are holding the country to ransom. This language dates back to the last period when the unions wielded real power: the decades after the Second World War. Are we seeing a resurgence that could eventually restore that power? To assess this, we need first to understand the roots from which it sprang.

Figure 1: Trade union membership levels, 1892 to 2021

Source: Administrative data on union membership from Department for Employment (1892-1973); and the Certification Office (1974-2020). Data on employees that are trade union members in the UK and Great Britain is based on the Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics.

What factors contributed to the unions’ post-war power?

On 13 May 1940, as German troops advanced towards the Channel, the new prime minister Winston Churchill made Ernest Bevin, leader of Britain’s largest union, his minister of labour. Without the war, this would have been unthinkable.

During the general strike in 1926, Churchill and Bevin had been opponents. Following the strike, the Conservative government to which Churchill belonged passed swingeing anti-union legislation under the 1927 Trade Disputes and Trade Union Act.

Then in 1940, the unions’ goodwill was crucial. This established a closeness to government that endured long after Germany’s defeat. The unions’ power was transformed in a way that made any return to 1930s-style mass unemployment intolerable. Since high state spending was vital to fight Nazism, critics asked why pre-war governments had not spent more to fight unemployment.

On 21 June 1944, Bevin introduced a white paper on employment policy, laying the ground for a cross-party commitment to full employment. This would underpin the negotiating power of his union successors for decades to come, because with little fear of unemployment, post-war workers could confidently strike for higher pay.

A long era of growth meant rising wages, high public spending, low inflation and full employment were all possible at once. When prices rose, union leaders kept wage claims under control.

By the early 1960s, this settlement was fraying. But this did nothing to weaken union power. Young workers saw union leverage on pay as the way to a better life. These aspirations were marshalled by ‘shop stewards’: workers who volunteered to bolster national pay agreements with ‘in the plant’ wage deals, often won by calling sudden unofficial strikes.

In 1961, there were an estimated 90,000 shop stewards; by 1968, there were 175,000 (Davies and Freedland, Labour Legislation and Public Policy: A Contemporary History, 1999). Factory workers’ rising pay bolstered unions’ appeal among white-collar workers. Membership spread through offices, schools, banks, aeroplane cockpits, councils and technical design workshops.

The state of the economy played a part. The unions’ capacity to force employers to raise pay was strengthened by the economic changes that had taken place since the war. Alongside nationalisation of coal, electricity and rail, a drive for economies of scale in the private sector saw the emergence of huge corporations. Large manufacturing workforces increasingly sat at the heart of complex supply chains.

This meant that small strikes could have major effects. In November 1968, for example, a dispute between two unions at the country’s only major supplier of disc brakes led to an unofficial stoppage by a small group of workers. This triggered the laying off of 500 of their colleagues and 7,000 workers in the wider car industry (Tyler, ‘Victims of Our History’, The Labour Party and In Place of Strife, 1968 to 1969, 2004).

Between 1969 and 1974, the unions successfully resisted attempts by Labour and Conservative governments to reduce their power by law. Meanwhile, officials in the National Union of Mineworkers developed innovative strategies for optimising the efficiency of strike action through secondary picketing. This involved targeting flying pickets at workplaces that refused to stop using coal, and winning sympathetic action from other unions.

Eventually, the 1974-79 Labour government offered concessions in return for union leaders restraining pay demands. By 1978, it looked as though the post-war settlement had been restored, with the unions stronger than ever. In 1977, a Marplan poll suggested that 80% of the public thought ‘union leaders have “a lot” of power and influence in governing the country’ (López, The Winter of Discontent: Myth, Memory and History, 2014).

How did unions’ current standing take shape?

In the 1970s and 1980s, these foundations of union power were undermined by a series of seismic structural shifts.

In autumn 1978, a nine-week strike at the Ford car company began a ‘winter of discontent’. Unionised workers rebelled against the 5% limit on pay increases demanded by the Labour government and this brought widespread frustration with strikes to a head.

Inflation had remained at least 7% since 1971, hitting 24% in 1975 (Office for National Statistics, ONS, 2023). This had multiple causes, from a spike in oil prices to heavy government spending, but unions’ pursuit of above-inflation wage claims took considerable blame.

This mix of inflation and strikes finally overrode the long-held fears of mass unemployment that had underpinned union strength. When Margaret Thatcher led the Conservatives to power in 1979, she raised interest rates to curb inflation, and allowed joblessness to climb.

This weakened the unions, but Thatcher also gradually reduced their power by law. Secondary picketing was banned, along with the ‘closed shop’, which had made employment in a given workplace dependent on union membership.

Strikes now had to be preceded by secret ballots. John Major’s government (1990-97) continued this process. The New Labour government (1997-2010) did not reverse it, bar introducing a right to union recognition from reluctant employers. Then in 2016, David Cameron (who had become prime minister in 2010) tightened strike ballot requirements further.

At first, the unions assumed that the Thatcher government was an aberration. But over time, union laws, outsourcing and privatisation combined with new technology and globalisation to transform the labour market.

The decline of strikes and restrictive practices boosted innovation and investment. Service industries waxed; manufacturing waned. Companies tended to be smaller and roles once delivered by union representatives were taken over by human resources departments.

In the private sector, wage bargaining was no longer conducted nationally. Pay became an individual matter. In 1980, 2.12 million people in the UK were self-employed; by 1990, this number was 3.54 million (ONS, 2023).

The unions were forced into retreat. They accepted employers’ partnership deals and no-strike clauses. They offered members legal and financial services, embedding the re-orientation of the workplace around the individual. New Labour’s legislation on statutory recognition strengthened their hand in recruiting formerly unrepresented workers, but in the private sector, unions’ reach withered.

While the economy was buoyant, this did not stop workers’ pay rising. But when the global financial crisis of 2007-09 caused GDP to shrink by over 6%, there were further rapid changes in the labour market (ONS, 2018).

As employers struggled, workers accepted cuts to pay or hours, or took worse-paying jobs. A structurally precarious ‘gig economy’ emerged and, by 2020, employed around 10 million people (Holgate, Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence (2021). New platform companies, such as food delivery apps like Deliveroo, absorbed those willing to work on a freelance contractor basis.

On the one hand, workers in the gig economy were not restricted by a contract of employment. On the other hand, they had no job security, or right to paid leave for holidays or illness, and companies tended to prefer dealing with them individually rather than through a union.

In manufacturing and retail, union membership remains relatively high, but in the private sector overall, it covers only one in eight workers (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, BEIS, 2022). For many in these sectors, the means to higher pay is not striking, but changing job.

This dwindling of union power was crystallised in spring 2022, when the P&O ferry company summarily fired 800 staff and replaced them with worse-paid agency workers, ignoring legal requirements on consulting unions. The post-war pattern of mass union membership in large employers survives in the public sector. But even there, prolonged pay freezes provoked little strike action until the summer of 2022.

What would it take to revive the unions’ post-war power?

The worldwide retreat from globalisation may improve workers’ position, but a return to the huge, easily-unionised manufacturing plants of the 1960s is unlikely. Any union recovery depends in part on how innovatively they can recruit and empower workers in the UK’s atomised, quick-changing private sector.

In the gig economy, new unions like the App Drivers and Couriers Union (ACDU) and the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) have coalesced to fight for higher pay, sick leave and holiday pay, and union recognition, which employers have resisted on the basis that workers are self-employed contractors.

These campaigns have involved such innovative strategies as crowdfunding strike pay, couriers cycling around client restaurants, and even new forms of flying picketing. Ironically, the conditions these workers are protesting affords an advantage: as contractors, they are not bound by legal requirements like ballots, and can withdraw their labour without notice.

More recently, much larger mainstream unions have made headway in this sector. In 2021, for example, Uber recognised the GMB union, allowing it to bargain at a national level for its 70,000 drivers. Other platform companies are more resistant: in January 2023, 300 GMB members at Amazon’s centre in Coventry began the first ever official strike affecting the company in the UK.

In hard-to-unionise sectors such as contract cleaning and catering, unions have had some success in recruiting through community networks. In some cases, they have managed to cajole universities and hospitals to end outsourcing and bring their cleaning staff in-house.

While face-to-face organising remains at the core of union strategy, digital methods have also proved useful in extending reach and boosting tactical efficiency during strikes and demonstrations. They have also helped with gathering information from members on labour conditions across diffuse working environments, as in social care.

Unions’ weakness has long deterred many potential members, but if the current strikes continue to deliver results on pay, this effect may go into reverse. We may even see a re-normalisation of collective bargaining, as indicated by the IWGB’s rejection of platform companies’ attempts to insist on dealing with workers one-to-one.

In the 1970s, white-collar private sector workers overcame a sense that unions are beneath their professional status. As the cushion of ultra-low interest rates disappears, this may happen again. Indeed, in October 2022, industrial action by barristers secured the backdating of the government’s offer of a 15% rise in legal aid fees. In March 2023, junior doctors are striking for a 35% raise, to restore their pay to 2008 levels.

For the time being, the unions’ leverage remains constrained by law. Prime minister Rishi Sunak has responded to the recent wave of public sector strikes by proposing legislation to empower managers in the ambulance, fire and rail services (and even schools and hospitals) to sack striking workers and sue their unions for damages if they do not maintain minimum service levels.

If Labour wins the next election, they have promised to scrap this, along with the 2016 Trade Union Act. The party’s 2022 green paper on employment rights proposes further loosening of restrictions on union activity, and to protect union members against intimidation and blacklisting. Labour also wants to revive whole-sector collective bargaining to produce binding ‘fair pay agreements’. This would reverse one of the most significant shifts since the 1970s.

The legal transformations of the 1980s are not under threat, but the unions’ post-war political standing did not rest on secondary picketing or avoiding pre-strike ballots. It depended on high membership levels, the potential impact of national strikes and, crucially, on the taboo on mass unemployment.

As we have seen, this was superseded by exhaustion with strikes in the 1970s. If unions are to recover anything like their post-war power, there needs to be a renewed sense thatworkers have been treated too poorly for too long, with unrepeatably intolerable consequences.

There were signs of a shift in this direction during the pandemic, when some of the worst-paid, least-unionised and most precariously-employed people in the economy – from cleaners to shelf-stackers to delivery couriers – became ‘key workers’. This focus has been sharpened by the privations of the energy crisis, alongside the news that, for example, a quarter of hospital trusts have organised food banks for their staff.

Public sympathy alone may not be enough. But if below-inflation pay continues to force key workers to seek other jobs, this might have such an impact on voters that it creates a new dominant taboo in British politics: a determination never to return to a world of stricken hospitals and non-existent train services.

This could provide a new foundation for renewed union power. It is unlikely to have quite the transformative political impact that the threat of invasion had in 1940. The unions will probably never to be as central as they were in the post-war landscape forged by Ernest Bevin. But for good or ill, there is significant scope for them to recover a stronger position than at any time since the 1980s.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

  • Gregor Gall
  • Jane Holgate
  • Tara Martin Lopez
  • Pete Dorey
  • Melanie Simms
Author: Phil Tinline
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