a remotely sympathetic government is in power, unions get restless and begin to
flex their muscles. Jane Lewis assesses the potential impact of today’s unions
and profiles their sometimes colourful leading lights
sight of pickets gathered around dustbin braziers (albeit no longer in donkey
jackets) provokes powerful memories for anyone old enough to remember the
1978-79 Winter of Discontent, which effectively brought down the Callaghan
government and helped consign both the Labour Party and the unions to the
political wilderness for nearly two decades.
as firefighters and militants from other unions prepare for a showdown with the
Government, the question on everyone’s lips is whether we are in for a repeat
performance. Could 2002-2003 mark the political apotheosis of organised labour
that Arthur Scargill has been dreaming about all these years?
established view is: no, of course not – mainly because the economic and
political conditions in modern Britain are so different from those which faced
the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ in 1978. We have the best economy in Europe and
unemployment is at an all-time low.
while it is true that the unions have finally managed to reverse the
precipitous downward trend of their membership lists, they remain comparative
weaklings compared to their muscular forebears. And their demands are very
different too. Back then, goes the argument, the unions were seeking complete
political domination. Now, they are sticking to the knitting and focusing on
legitimate concerns such as improving pay and employee rights. They are, in
other words, still behaving ‘responsibly’.
as this Government is uncomfortably well aware, the past two years have marked
a sea-change in the trade union movement. It didn’t take the firefighters’
strike to demonstrate that the much-vaunted period of ‘partnership’ is now well
and truly over. Indeed, Government allies at the top of the major unions – even
the most traditionally moderate – are looking distinctly thin on the ground.
succession of new general secretaries have swept in, pretty much all on the
ticket that they will no longer ‘rubber stamp’ a government agenda they believe
goes increasingly against their members’ interests. Many have
militant/Socialist Alliance/Marxist/Trotskyite/Scargillite backgrounds. On paper
at least, some of the UK’s most powerful unions are now in the grip of the hard
left. And their many outpourings on subjects as diverse as Iraq, Afghanistan,
the euro and interest rates, give a lie to any claims of wider political
one issue that unites them all (apart from the inevitable pay demands) is the
issue of private sector involvement in public services. Yet without PPP and
PFI, the Government stands no chance of enacting the reforms on which it has
staked its political credibility.
opinion on both sides hardening by the day, a major showdown at some point
seems inevitable. Indeed, some on the union side accuse Downing Street of
fanning the firefighters’ dispute – by taking an unreasonably stubborn stance
on pay negotiations.
perhaps the long-term ace in the unions’ hand is a subtle change in public
attitudes to wealth. When a footballer – however talented – can earn twice as
much in one afternoon as a fireman makes in a year, questions about the
validity of the established meritocracy credo are inevitable.
to the point for many employees is the question of executive pay. While the
median annual salary package for the UK’s highest paid directors increased by
107 per cent between 1994 and 2001, average employee pay in the same companies
only rose by 31 per cent. Figures show that even when their companies are in
crisis, executives continue to inflate their own salaries. On current trends,
it won’t be long before we are back in Edwardian Britain in terms of income distribution.
has been a feeling brewing up in this country that you can do what you want and
get away with it," said Jim Callaghan in 1978. He was talking then about
union militants. But the same words could be applied with equal resonance to
certain sections of the business establishment today. No wonder the unions are
claiming their recruitment territory hasn’t looked so fertile for decades. As
for HR, it could be a rocky road ahead.
like to say: Comrades, enjoy! – but we dare not.
A-Z of trade unions: An at-a-glance risk assessment
Co-general secretaries Derek Simpson and Roger Lyons
Formerly the most Blairite of all unions, formerly run with a grip of iron by
Sir Ken Jackson (the chief union advocate of private involvement in the public
sector), Amicus – the merged Amalgamated Engineering & Electrical (AEEU)
and the Manfacturing, Science, Finance Union (MSF) – underwent a major
sea-change last summer. Jackson was ousted by former Communist, Derek Simpson,
who has already called for an end to "the sham of sweetheart deals"
and announced his support for collective bargaining. Simpson is also demanding
legislative changes to protect jobs and the repeal of anti-union laws. His
leadership may be compromised by the more moderate MSF leader, Roger Lyons, who
is hanging on as co-general secretary.
activity Comparatively gentle – localised support against bullying, unequal
pay structures and court support in unfair dismissal cases. Amicus recently
announced it would represent the clergy who currently have no employment rights
and has taken part in campaigns to recruit more City workers.
Lyons says Amicus is proud of connections with 110 Labour MPs, including around
20 ministers and five cabinet ministers. Simpson, thought to be forging links
with other ‘Awkward Squad’ leaders, is unlikely to agree.
rating: 6 The inaptly-named Amicus may be too caught up in its own bitter
infighting to pose a threat in the short term, but as Britain’s second largest
union, it could prove a sleeping giant. At September’s TUC conference, Simpson
threatened to push the union into a 10-brazier danger zone when he promised to
give Blair "a f****** migraine".
General secretary, Billy Hayes
The Communications Workers Union (CWU) aims to stop the "back door
privatisation of the Post Office" and prevent job losses, restructuring
and outsourcing, on the grounds it creates a "two-tier workforce". A
major campaign is to persuade the industry’s regulator to pull back from plans
to break the Royal Mail’s monopoly and open the market to rival firms. This
year the CWU cut donations to the Labour Party by £500,000.
activity The CWU’s recent record for industrial action is second to none.
The Royal Mail lost 62,000 days to 355 local strikes in 2000-1, many of which
were illegal wildcat actions. The relationship between postal workers and their
managers is described as appalling. The situation did ease last year, with a
planned national strike headed off by the settlement of a pay dispute. But
industrial action is threatened over a proposed outsourcing deal with Securicor
affecting some 3,000 staff.
The 2001 election of left-winger Billy Hayes is seen as cementing links with
rating: 8 The militancy of postal workers – and the hefty impact of any
action on the general public – means the CWU punches way above its weight.
Moreover, rank-and-file postmen are well organised and willing to thumb their
noses at their union leaders if necessary. The Royal Mail’s continuing
financial jeopardy (still losing some £1m a day) may have engendered a more
‘pull together’ attitude. But with more deregulation and downsizing in the
offing, future dispute seems inevitable.
General secretary Andy Gilchrist
The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) is currently aiming to secure a 40 per cent
no-strings pay-rise taking members’ salaries to £30,000, and a new automatic
pay mechanism to set wages. It strongly resists modernisation of work
practices, including removal of the longstanding ban on overtime.
activity The first national firefighters strike in 25-years began in
mid-November when the FBU rejected the 11 per cent pay rise over two years recommended
by the independent Bain Commission prior to the Acas intervention. Further
eight-day strikes have been planned.
Under Gilchrist, the FBU’s links with other hardline ‘new wave’ unions have
strengthened. But its strike action is supported throughout the trade union
movement, including moderate TUC leader, John Monks.
rating: 9 It could prove the catalyst for much wider union action.
"Once it was the miners who led the charge; now it’s the firemen,"
says one union source. The strikes have already provoked walk-outs by rail
unions and others over workplace safety, neatly sidestepping breaching laws
banning secondary action. A lengthy strike is particularly worrying given the
current terrorist threat, and will distract the army from preparations for a
possible war with Iraq. The outcome of the dispute will also set the tone for
union demands in 2003. Worryingly for the Government and employers, the
firefighters’ case is widely supported by the public.
General secretary and treasurer, John Edmonds
Originating from the Gas Workers and General Union, but now incorporating a
wide range of other unions, the GMB union has traditionally been a moderate
union. However, under the leadership of Edmonds it has proved a major thorn in
the Blair government’s side and has led opposition to public/private
partnership (PPP) in local government and the NHS, insisting on a policy review
and warning of a Railtrack-style disaster if the Government’s current PPP plans
continue to be pursued.
blames the Government for its "failure to rebalance the industrial
relationship after years of rampant Thatcherism" and backs the campaign
for higher state pensions linked to earnings.
Labour to the core, the GMB has a progressive outlook towards Europe: it is the
only UK union to have established a Brussels office.
activity The GMB wholeheartedly backed this year’s local government
workers’ pay strikes, threatened to withdraw support from Labour council
candidates and cut New Labour donations to the tune of £2m.
also says it will stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the Fire Brigades
Union in its current pay dispute.
Strong international connections with unions across Europe, and big on
rating: 7 Although Edmonds’ retirement next year will relieve Downing
Street of one of its most articulate critics, the GMB union seems determined to
push for a showdown over the public/private debate and the private finance
initiative, which it resolutely opposes.
General secretary, Mark Serwotka
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union has a long, warring, left-wing
history, remarkable in a predominantly white-collar civil service union. Stakes
were upped considerably when far left activist Mark Serwotka – who campaigned
on his successful leadership of many strikes – became leader in 2000. He claims
that, despite his political views, securing better pay for members is the key
objective. PCS supports a return to national pay bargaining, backed up with
strikes if necessary. Has rejected ‘partnership’ with the Government on the
grounds it has not benefited civil servants.
action The recent strike in benefits agencies over safety screens was claimed,
by Serwotka, as a "testing ground" for future action.
Strong links via Serwotka with the Trotskyite Socialist Alliance.
rating: 7 As the largest union in Whitehall, the PCS union’s declared industrial
militancy is a little too close for comfort for the Government. Moreover,
Serwotka’s charismatic leadership – and links with other leftist groups – could
see him and PCS emerge as a rallying point for the wider hard left.
General secretary Bob Crow
The largest of the rail unions, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and
Transport Workers (RMT) is demanding complete re-nationalisation of British
Rail; an end to private involvement in the London Underground; the "total
repeal of every strand of Tory trade union legislation"; and better pay,
working conditions and pensions deals for members. With the election of hardliner Bob Crow, the union also assumed a
wider political agenda. Crow dubbed George Bush and Tony Blair "war criminals"
over plans to attack Iraq.
activities Emerging as one of the UK’s most militant unions, in recent
years the RMT has organised or been involved in more than 30 strikes over pay
and working conditions, affecting half a dozen railway operators companies as
well as the London Underground. The union has also distanced itself from the
Labour Party (Deputy PM John Prescott recently resigned as a member) and is
proclaiming solidarity with the firefighters.
Strong connections with the, smaller, train drivers’ union, Aslef. Crow is also
seen as the main cheer-leader of younger, more militant trade unionists and is
linked with hard left activists.
rating: 10 The RMT’s tough and unremitting stance against employers has
remained unchanged despite stop-gap agreements over pay on the Underground and
elsewhere and it will continue to push for renationalisation.
union has also demonstrated its ability to stir up trouble in other sectors and
General secretary, Bill Morris
A long-time New Labour ally, Morris has steered the Transport & General
Workers Union (T&G) to become one of the most moderate unions, focusing on
improving conditions for workers in partnership with the Government. Critics
claim it is almost too cosy with Downing Street, though Morris remains
resolutely eurosceptic. Cracks are now beginning to show, notably over the
Public Private Partnerships. Morris has spoken out against foundation
hospitals’ specialist status, warning too much autonomy will result in
unrestrained managements, "free to buy, free to hire, free to fire, free
from any sort of democratic accountability". Blair’s ‘wreckers’ speech
last spring didn’t help.
activity T&G workers planned a series of one-day strikes at UK airports
in December, "in sheer frustration" at a 6.3 per cent pay offer by
the British Airports Authority. The T&G averted the strikes after
recommending that members accept an 8 per cent pay rise over two years.
Previously defined by Morris’ close relationship with Chancellor Gordon Brown,
the airport dispute has strengthened links with other unions involved and some
stoppages coincide with national fire strikes.
rating: 3 This may soon rise. The front-runner to replace Morris, due to
retire next year, is his left wing Liverpudlian deputy, Tony Woodley, a former
convenor at Vauxhall Motors.
General secretary, Dave Prentis
The UK’s largest union, with members in local government, education, health and
the gas and electricity industries, it has threatened the Government with legal
action over the ‘creeping privatisation’ of public services and says it will
not balk at strike action in the NHS. Also supports the renationalisation of public
utilities. Claims to be "bemused" by Labour’s support for private
companies. Strongly opposes the euro, claiming it would cut £10-£20bn from
activities Leading light in the recent walk-out of one million local
authority workers. Unless demands to curb privatisation are met, Prentis has
threatened a wave of strikes to rival those of the 1970s. It is currently
reviewing its £1.5m annual contribution to Labour Party funds.
Unison’s clout and firmly asserted agenda makes it the natural leader of
smaller unions with common aims.
rating: 7 While Prentis is by no means a firebrand, his threat of strike
action is no empty rhetoric. Its most fearsome weapon, is its £10m war chest.
"We are not coming at this from some point of weakness," says
Prentis. Adept at PR, the union recently spent £1m on a cinema ad against
public services privatisation.