Britain - The TUC leaders' mild fit over union recognition

May/Jun 1998

Ever since Blair got into office, the TUC leadership have been engaged in protracted behind-the-scenes negotiations with employers and government representatives over the issue of union recognition. As this journal goes to print, these discussions are likely to be coming to a head with the imminent release of the government's long-delayed white paper "Fairness at Work". This should indicate how Blair plans to carry out his election manifesto commitment to restore and strengthen the right of workers to union representation in the workplace. But of course, in line with Labour's policies in every other field over the past year, there is every reason to expect that the proposed legislation will be heavily tilted in favour of employers.

In advance of the white paper's publication, union leaders have become increasingly agitated, accusing Blair of using delaying tactics, failing to use his weight to shift the negotiations with the bosses' organisation CBI in the right direction and reneging on his election promises.

Some pro-Blair publications have even followed suit. On February 13, for instance, the New Statesman, which is now firmly on the Blairite bandwagon, since it was acquired by Labour's millionaire cabinet minister Geoffrey Robinson, published an article on the issue entitled "The whiff of a sell-out". In and of itself such a headline was already most unusual in this journal. It quoted a "union leader with impeccable new Labour credentials" threatening to "go into internal opposition" over this issue. The same article also quoted the general secretary of the technicians' union MSF, Roger Lyons, and arch-Blairite, arguing that the issue of union recognition could "make the split on the lone-parent benefits look like a vicar's tea party".

For the first time in many months, this has produced some defiant speeches by TUC leaders and even threats of "action". Of course, these threats have remained totally empty so far. Union leaders have been careful to limit their "action" to lobbying individual ministers and MPs and making speeches at conferences. In particular, there has been no attempt whatsoever at building up any support for the TUC's demand among the working class, let alone giving workers a chance to express their feelings on the issue, nor hint that this might be the TUC's intention at any point.

However, on this occasion, the papers might have a point, for once, in their on-going speculation about a possible rift between Blair and the trade-union leadership.

Indeed, in this particular case, it is not just workers' rights or conditions which are under attack - something that union leaders have proved quite willing to put up with over the past years. What is at stake, rather, is the possibility for the union apparatuses to increase, or even maintain, their incomes on the one hand and their leverage in front of the bosses, on the other. Whether this may lead to union leaders going into opposition and really opposing the Labour government's policies, even on that particular issue, is, however, quite another matter.

The TUC and the Labour government

Last year's Labour election manifesto stated: "People should be free to join or not join a union. Where they do decide to join, and where a majority of the relevant workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them, the union should be recognised". This pledge, and its formulation, was most probably negotiated with union leaders when the manifesto was drafted. In any case, it provided the basis for the TUC's own campaign in the run-up to the general election with its famous poster, which read: "Put a cross in the wrong place and you can kiss employee rights away".

What the TUC leadership really expected Blair to do is not known. But in fact, at least in the first few months after the election, they had every reason to be pleased with the new government. Indeed, while the concessions granted by Blair to the union machineries were not given much publicity, they were nevertheless substantial. There were, of course, the usual appointments of government-friendly personalities to governmental bodies and quangos, in which the union bureaucracy got its cut (even if this was dismal compared to that of business). And some of the jobs they were offered were quite significant. For instance, although few transport union members have been aware of this, the T&G general secretary Bill Morris was quietly appointed to the governing body of the Bank of England. Meanwhile a host of union bureaucrats were appointed to comfortable jobs representing Britain in European Union institutions.

More importantly for the union machineries' revenue, but still very quietly, the government repealed section 15 of the 1993 Trade Union Reform and Employment Rights Act.

This had imposed the need for union members to periodically confirm in writing their consent to having their union dues deducted automatically from their wages through a checkoff agreement. The enforcement of this measure, in August 1994, had resulted in an immediate loss of members and revenue for the unions. And it had often taken them quite some time to recoup their losses, and not even entirely in some cases. Needless to say, union leaders were keen to see this section 15 repealed.

Ironically, this decision was not even submitted to the Commons. To avoid publicity, no doubt, Blair's ministers used an "anti- red tape" law sponsored a few years before by Michael Heseltine, which allowed the government to repeal any regulation which could create unnecessary red-tape for business. So that the check-off system legislation was restored to its original form in the name of business interests! In a way of course, this did relieve the bosses of some red-tape (and it is worth noting that the CBI did not make any complaints on this issue), but primarily it provided the bureaucrats with more secure revenue.

Once the check-off issue was sorted out, there remained that of union recognition. This time, the government proved much less willing to act promptly. Not that passing emergency legislation would have been a problem of course, given Labour's huge majority in the Commons. But Blair's line was, just as it was in the case of the minimum wage for instance, that any legislation in this field should "express a voluntary consensus" among employers, rather being imposed on them. For Labour, compulsion was alright in order to force the unemployed youth into rotten jobs, through the "New Deal" scheme, but it was out of the question when dealing with employers.

The bureaucracy's problems

Yet, over the past years, the union leadership have been relying primarily on recognition legislation being passed at some point, in order to reverse the downward trend in union membership, and therefore revenue.

Not that the union bureaucracy has not tried other ploys. All sorts of gimmicks have been used since the late 80s. But most have proved disappointing. The "business unionism" style, offering all kind of packages, from mortgages to holidays, insurances and even PEPs, has failed to attract many of the professional workers they were aimed at - although they did attract some additional revenue for the union machineries.

True, the recruitment drives targeted by some unions (mainly GMB and T&G) at young, part-time and temporary workers scored some successes. But the very nature of the jobs worked by the new recruits, which were mostly short-term, low-paid jobs, and the absence of permanent lively union structures to accommodate them while they were in jobs or between jobs, has resulted in a high turnover without increasing significantly the overall membership.

What is the extent of losses in union membership? The TUC does not provide official membership figures. Instead they rely themselves on those provided by the official Labour Force Survey and, due to the periodical nature of this survey, the only figures available date back to 1995. But they indicate some quite significant trends.

In terms of overall union membership, the LFS shows a drop of nearly 19% between 1989 and 1995, from 9 million members to 7.3m (in fact these figures overestimate real union membership in that they also include members of staff associations, which often have nothing to do with trade-unionism). Part of this fall was due, of course, to job cuts in manufacturing. Thus the biggest losses over this period were in 1990-1991, the peak of the industrial closures, with 634,000 union members disappearing in just one year. But the fact that union density, that is the proportion of union members among workers in employment, also dropped from 34% in 1989 to 28.8% in 1995, shows that job cuts were not the only factor in the fall. Of course, the other factor was the huge increase during that period of forms of employment which are not conducive to union membership. The numbers of part-timers in the workforce increased by 23%, those in temporary jobs by 30% and those with self-employed status by 18%. These conditions provide the bosses with more means of intimidating workers and, besides, because the jobs are more short-term, many of these workers do not join a union knowing that they will have to switch to another job (or the dole) shortly.

What is striking in the LFS figures, however, is that in 1995, 91% of union members were in workplaces where unions are recognised. This proportion has been increasing slowly but regularly since the beginning of the 1980s. Of course, this is hardly surprising. Workers seldom join a union out of principle alone, these days. For good reason too, given the blatant passivity of union leaders over the past decade. They join when there seems to be an immediate purpose in joining. In the absence of any real union activity offered by the vast majority of branches to ordinary members, the only purpose in joining a union arises precisely from the desire to strengthen the position of unions when they do represent workers, i.e. where they are recognised.

Of course there would still be plenty of scope for the unions to recruit in workplaces where they are already recognised, since according to the LFS survey, there are 3.8 million workers in these workplaces who are not union members (37% of the workforce). But in fact, in this respect, the union bureaucracy is paying the price of its past passivity: even in those workplaces where they have never stopped being recognised they have lost a sizeable proportion of their membership.

Given that there is certainly no will among the union bureaucracy to change anything with regard to the tame and passive operation of their organisations - rather the contrary, in fact, as we argue later in this article - their only other option is to find some compulsory way to increase the number of workplaces in which they are recognised. Yet where struggles over union recognition have taken place, like at the Critchley Labels plant in South Wales, it has never been thanks to the initiative of the union machineries, which have even often refused to provide any meaningful backing. Being unwilling to mount the fight that would be necessary to impose recognition on reluctant employers, the union bureaucrats can therefore only rely on legislation.

Labour-made traps

The pledge made in Labour's election manifesto might have appeared crystal clear to many people. But in reality, it was full of traps of all kinds which have been highlighted in the negotiations between the TUC, the CBI and Blair's ministers.

In this field, as in that of the so-called "New Deal" for the unemployed, and in fact in many others, Blair's strategists have opted to copy an American model. In this case, the union recognition legislation that was introduced by Roosevelt in 1935 - the Wagner Act. This act gave workers recognition rights provided a simple majority of staff voted in favour of it. However, the way it works in practice today in the USA is not as straightforward.

First the union must demonstrate the support of 30% of the relevant workforce in a petition. Since the employer has the names of the signatories, this opens up the way to all sorts of pressures. US labour statistics show, for instance, that sackings occur in 25% of recognition drives. Then starts the process of organising the ballot itself. In the US legal profession, anti- recognition law is a growth industry. Once the recognition process is started, the employers bring in an army of specialist lawyers and the process can take years before it is actually completed (successfully or not) through legal bickering over all kinds of things, particularly over who is to be included in the ballot. As a result, in 1992, only 20% of all recognition ballots in workplaces with more than 500 workers were successful. Needless to say, the success rate was much lower in smaller workplaces.

The extent of the possible legal wrangles over the implementation of the future legislation in this country has already been illustrated by the arguments put forward by the CBI. First, there is the question of the definition of the bargaining unit. In this respect, the CBI's position is basically that it should be up to the employer to decide. Of course, this would allow the bosses to use all kinds of tricks, such as including management layers with workers and gerrymandering the workplace into different units deliberately worked out to confine union recognition to only a small section of workers.

Another bone of contention is which workplaces would be concerned by the law. The CBI argues that only workplaces with more than 50 employees should be concerned. But, according to the TUC, this could leave out as much as half of all employees.

Then there is the issue of what exactly a "majority of the relevant workforce" is supposed to mean. The position of the CBI is, of course, to demand the interpretation which would make this "majority" as big and difficult to achieve as possible. In April, Margaret Beckett presented the TUC with a set of options, which basically reflect the CBI's wishes: the majority in favour of recognition should include either more than 50% of the workers allowed to vote regardless of the turnout, or, alternatively, 50% of those voting but provided the turnout is at least 66%. Then on 20 April she made another proposal, this time that the majority should include at least 40% of the workforce regardless on the turnout, to which the TUC general secretary Monks replied by demanding that this threshold should be reduced to 30%.

Given the fact that this is to be a postal ballot, and the usual low turnout in such ballot, the TUC leaders have good grounds to object. After all, as some union leaders have pointed out rightly, if Labour has got into government with the votes of just over 30% of registered voters, why should a union have to do better than that in order to win recognition?

Besides, if such rules were to be implemented, they would be even more restrictive than the present US legislation. And given the poor rate of success of recognition drives in the US, there are reasons to be worried as to what would happen in Britain, where the legal system is probably just as viciously biased against workers as it is in the USA.

But the worst thing about this, is that, in theory at least, nothing rules out the possibility for the bosses to use such legislation against existing recognition agreements. Unless the law actually includes specific provisions against such attempts by the bosses, which is unlikely given Blair's determination not to upset them, there will be nothing to stop an employer going to the courts and questioning the validity of a recognition agreement on the ground that the union's support has never been tested. And what if a judge decides to rule in favour of such a request? Then we may see employers trying to use this law to impose "democratically" the scrapping of existing recognition agreements.

This is not just a theoretical risk. There are many workplaces in this country where workers - including union members - are so bitter about the inactivity of the unions at local and national level, if not about their outright betrayals, that they may well choose to vote with their feet in a ballot designed to confirm union recognition, in protest or out of indifference. In such workplaces, unions might find it difficult to achieve the kind of quorum which might be required by the law - and this is obviously a concern of the TUC leaders.

But, once again, within the constraints of their choices - that is, to avoid open conflict with the government and the bosses at all costs - there is not much they can do except lobby Labour ministers and employers in an attempt to try to convince them that it is in their interests to ensure that the unions remain strong and credible in the eyes of the workforce.

From "partnership" to sweetheart deals

Beyond the noises made by union leaders around this issue, there are many indications of the fact that they have another, parallel agenda. Indeed, how could the union bureaucrats convince the bosses that they are indispensable to their businesses? "Partnership" is the answer. That is, a deliberate policy by the union leaders, not just to go along with the bosses' wishes at the time they are formulated, but actually to anticipate them, by, to use the TUC "new unionism" jargon, offering "innovative changes" and making "constructive proposals" to boost competitiveness and improve profits - which, inevitably, results in significant losses for workers in terms of conditions, and sometimes even wages.

Such sweetheart deals are not new. In the 1980s, when the first large-scale foreign industrial investors came to Britain, attracted by the subsidies and tax rebates offered by Thatcher, some unions played a pioneering role in engaging in talent contests in order to win single-union recognition deals. In exchange they often had to concede restrictions on the right to strike, limitations to shopfloo-level representation for workers and some measure of flexibility (already!). Most prominent among these unions were the engineering union AEU and the then electricians' union EETPU (now merged with the AEU in the AEEU). But other, allegedly more "left" unions, such as the transport union, also took part in this game.

Today, what we are witnessing is not very different, except that instead of taking place in new, "greenfield" workplaces, where what is at stake is the unionisation of an entire new workforce, it is taking place in old trade-union strongholds where, if anything, such moves are more likely to push members to tear up their membership cards than anything else.

On of the first examples of such deals came last autumn at British Airways, where the T&G leadership volunteered an agreement aimed at increasing BA's profits through cutting new entrants' wages and aggravating working conditions. In fact, throughout 1997, the T&G entered into many similar deals, but usually in much smaller companies, particularly in the bus and coach industry.

More recently another blatant example came with the recently announced proposal made to the workforce by management and the T&G leaders at Vauxhall's car factories. Again this includes a 20% cut in new entrants' wages, plus a host of flexibility measures affecting existing conditions, including further jobs cuts. It is true that in this case, initially at least, it was Vauxhall's parent company, the mighty US multinational General Motors, who took the initiative by threatening to close the Luton plant after Brown announced that Britain would not be part of the first wave of countries joining the European Monetary Union in 1999. Given the very large investment plan which had been started by Vauxhall the previous year, it was obvious that this threat was primarily aimed at getting Blair to offer some compensation to Vauxhall in the form of a large subsidy - as the government had done a few months before when Ford had threatened to close its Halewood factory. But regardless of this, the T&G leadership went out of its way to make "innovative proposals" to Vauxhall and General Motors "in order to secure the future of the British Vauxhall plants". Of course GM was not very likely to turn away such "goodwill" and it was out of these proposals that came the outrageous "offer" put in April to the Vauxhall workforce.

At about the same time as the Vauxhall deal surfaced, another such sweetheart agreement appeared to be in the making in the Post Office, when Derek Hodgson, joint general secretary of the postal workers union UCW, jumped on the announcement that the Post Office had engaged in talks with Littlewoods in a bid to run the National Lottery with them. Hodgson, declared to the media that:

"Not only could the Post Office run the Lottery - bringing it back to an organisation the public know and trust - but they could also offer bulk deliveries of scratchcards and set up a national distribution network to supply lottery cards. We would certainly be prepared to discuss with them opening offices later in the evenings and seven days opening to bring us more into line with our competitors - such as supermarkets".

Many postal workers who have had to wage a guerilla war against management's constant attempts at increasing their workloads, particularly delivery postmen in Greater London and counter clerks across the country, must have been flabbergasted by such a statement. And indeed, it really sounds much more like that of a top manager, talking about the Post Office as if he owned it, than that of a union leader concerned in the least with the interests (or even the feelings, for that matter) of his members. But this is precisely what "partnership" is about.

Union rights must be defended, but not bureaucratic rights

Over the past months, a number of events have been organised (and others will he held in the coming weeks) by "left" trade-union officials, sometimes even by the revolutionary left, in order to demand that Blair's "Fairness at Work" should deliver the union rights that the Labour manifesto promised. In so doing, however, and whatever the reservations they may have expressed, the organisers of these events, which were aimed at activists rather than ordinary workers, have largely aligned themselves behind the TUC demands over recognition legislation.

Yet, what is there for workers to gain in such legislation? What does union recognition effectively mean for most ordinary workers in the first place?

One side of it is the day-to-day activity of shop stewards to represent their workmates against the company. The existence of a shop-steward system is usually linked to some form of union recognition. Imposing such a system is a step forward for workers in that, provided the stewards do their jobs - and many of them genuinely do try to do their best - it allows them to maintain a permanent counter-pressure on management based on the collective support of the workforce. This is why many employers, particularly among the biggest, are prepared to go to great lengths in order to remove stewards from the shopfloor by entangling them in a web of administrative tasks, procedures and joint meetings with management.

So this aspect of union recognition needs to be defended and extended. But only workers can wage this fight collectively. And they will do it provided there is a stake for them, that is that the shop steward system is really doing what it is meant to do. For this reason it is vital for both ordinary workers and activists to protect the shop steward system against all attempts by employers to take the edge off it, sever its links with the shopfloor or, even worse, transform it into an appendage of management - something which unfortunately happens sometimes, both in large private companies like Ford, for instance, and public organisations like the NHS.

However, union recognition does not automatically imply a shop steward system. Many privatised railways companies for instance, have a kind of union recognition agreement, but do not recognise elected stewards. And there is now a growing number of employers which deny workers the right to shopfloor representation. So that any fight for union recognition should really begin with imposing such representation, without which union recognition is merely a top-level gentleman's agreement between managers and union bureaucrats over which workers have no control whatsoever.

As to the other side of union recognition - that of collective bargaining - it certainly has to be defended and, where it does not exist, extended. The old "one for all and all for one" trade union principle remains as valid as ever, but only as the collective expression of workers. Collective bargaining should be an instrument for all workers to use, not just a guarantee for the union machineries that union dues keep flowing in. Nor should it be allowed to become an instrument for the union bureaucrats to use the support they claim to have from the workforce, to pursue their own agenda, for instance by entering into the kind of sweetheart deals mentioned earlier with companies, on the backs of the workforce.

What this issue comes down to ultimately is that of the control exercised by ordinary workers on the unions, both at workplace and national levels. The past two decades have shown how the union bureaucracy, using both their hold on the union apparatuses and the mechanisms they had created jointly with employers in the previous period where unions were recognised, have been able to paralyse workers, through open betrayal of their struggles sometimes, and more generally by spreading a feeling of impotence among them.

It seems unlikely at this stage that union leaders will mount a real fight, even on a limited scale, over the issue of recognition. If only because they probably think they still have a lot of scope in terms of their so-called "innovative proposals" to make deals with companies. But this government is so obviously desperate to show its goodwill to the bosses, that employers are becoming increasingly greedy to get even more concessions than those they have already been offered. So it is more than likely that in the coming period, the working class will have to face more attacks on its basic trade union rights at work.

Then, any fightback, if it is to be both effective and to lay the ground for future struggles, will have to defend not only existing rights but also aim at turning these rights and the workplace union organisation, to begin with, into fighting instruments controlled by workers.