Despite recent industrial action and gains in union membership there is
little sign of a return to the bad old days of widespread unrest, writes
In 1927, Walter Citrine, then TUC general secretary, told the organisation’s
congress in Edinburgh that trade unions should aim for "an effective
relationship which will ensure greater stability and harmony in industry".
The significance of the date is that he made that speech the year after the
General Strike was defeated and the trade union movement decimated. In doing
so, he gave birth to one of the patterns of twentieth century trade unionism
that critics on both the far right and far left love to highlight: unions
favour partnership with employers at times of industrial weakness.
Ever since John Monks took over leadership of the TUC in 1993, he has
evangelised the partnership gospel with great consistency. Partnership, he has
said over and over again, is "the only game in town".
This has not always been a popular message within the labour movement. Most
of his tenure has been during a period of unquestionable union weakness. The
Winter of Discontent in 1979 left a deep scar on public consciousness.
The decline of manufacturing, cuts in the public sector and creation of new
jobs in service industries had caused union representation to plummet from 55
per cent of the workforce in 1979, to just 29 per cent by the mid-1990s. Fewer
than one in five workers in the private sector was represented by a union. A
generation was growing up with a highly individualised outlook and an
entrenched scepticism about whether unions could do much for them. Moderation,
restraint and partnership were the inevitable consequences.
But what about now? The Employment Relations Act 1999, (ERA) has
unquestionably put a spring in the unions’ step. In the 12 months to October
last year, they added more than 120,000 members1. During the same period they
clinched 470 new recognition deals – three times as many as in 2000. According
to some studies2, 1,951 new agreements have been struck since 1995, while
campaigns covering 500,000 workers are under way.
The year 2000-2001 witnessed a rise in union membership of 0.6 per cent, the
second year to show a slight increase, which has reversed the long- term
decline. And according to the most recent Workplace Employment Relations
Survey, 61 per cent of non-union employees believe unions "are necessary
to protect working conditions and wages"3.
So how does partnership stand in the more confident climate for trade unions
Spring is the wrong time of year to be asking such a question. As the pay
bargaining calendar hots up, a bit of industrial sabre-rattling is routine. Recent
48-hour walkouts on Arriva, South West Trains, Scotrail and threats of action
in the classrooms and postal services have received fulsome coverage. The Daily
Mail even claimed it "proved the far left were on the march again".
It should be remembered, however, that there was a very similar picture in
the spring and early summer of 2000. There was action on Connex South Eastern
and among workers at Ford. It remains to be seen if the election of a new
generation of left-wingers to the leadership of the RMT and the Communication
Workers’ Union has much impact.
Yet while there is little evidence that such sector-specific strife is
indicative of a more widespread cantankerous mood, the all-important figure –
the number of days lost to industrial action – has been rising. In the year to
November 2001, there were 479,000 days lost to strikes4. This is still
historically minuscule – in the 1980s, the average was 7.2 million a year. Yet
it is up on 1998, when 235,000 were lost, the lowest on record, and up too on
1999’s figure of 242,000.
The more intriguing story of the rebirth of trade unionism, however, is that
the unions which have been most ostentatiously moderate seem to have done best
from the new law on recognition.
Recent figures from the TUC5 show that by far and away the biggest winner is
the right-wing Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, now Amicus
following its merger with MSF (Manufacturing, Science, Finance union) at the
start of the year. It has negotiated 134 agreements in the 12 months to October
Next is the fairly moderate GMB with 109 agreements. By contrast the more
left-wing Transport and General Workers’ Union – significantly larger than both
– has managed just 58.
Of course, such results could be the result of skilful campaigning by
Amicus. After all, the leftish GPMU print union (Graphical, Paper and Media
Union) has also pulled off a disproportionate number of deals.
Yet it seems hard to believe that the mild, employer-friendly reputation of
the AEEU has hindered its progress. The AEEU has in the past been willing to
sign up to ‘no disruption’ clauses – a move that would be a concession too far
for many unions.
Sir Ken Jackson, its general secretary, pens prose that chimes harmoniously
with the HR agenda. "Our partnership app-roach is not a tactical
manoeuvre, but a preferred way of industrial life," he wrote recently.
"It is not a new word for deference either. Partnership will promote
mutual help, respect and deliver better work from people because they feel
It was always an unheralded aspect of the ERA that it would work to
encourage moderate trade unionism. If, for example, an employer is faced with
opposing claims for recognition from unions, the ERA allows it to choose which
one to deal with.
In 2000, Premier Prisons Services, which runs private prisons, opted to deal
with the pliant, non-TUC Prison Service Union at Doncaster jail, instead of the
rancorous Prison Officers’ Association – despite the fact that the POA had some
86 per cent of staff in membership. Similar tales have emerged from Eurotunnel,
Rosti Plastics and several others.
So does this mean partnership is here to stay? Well, yes and no. One of the
peculiarities of the partnership vogue is that its presence is far greater in
rhetoric than in reality. According to one analysis of the nature of the new
recognition deals, "only a small percentage… appear to be ‘partnership’
and/or ‘sweetheart’ agreements’, even though there is considerable pressure
from employers and government to sign these agreements."7 The study’s
author Gregor Gall, senior lecturer in industrial relations at Stirling
University, says most of the deals were "straightforward agreements
covering information, representation, consultation and bargaining rights on the
basis of mutual recognition of each sides’ roles". In other words bog
standard industrial relations is the norm.
However, if ‘partnership’ simply refers to a moderate attitude – the
antithesis of the oppositionist approach – then it seems safe to say that its
position as the official ideology of the modern trade union movement will
remain unchallenged. Yet it will take another 10 years before anyone can say
for sure if the historic identification of partnership with weakness, and
militancy with strength, has finally been broken.
1 Continuing Upward Trend in Union Recognition, European Industrial
Relations Review, No 338, IRS, March 2002, www.xperthr.co.uk
2 Trade Union Recognition in Britain 1995-2001: Turning a Corner, by Dr
Gregor Gall, British Journal of Industrial Relations
3 WERS, Department of Trade and Industry, 1998
4 Figures from the DTI
5 Focus on Recognition, TUC, 2002
6 Personnel Today, Viewpoint, 8 January 2002-04-04
7 British Journal of Industrial Relations, as above
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