Trade unions are workers

One of the historical stories that’s driven British politics over the last 40 years has been “trade union power”. It’s been a big part of campaigning in virtually every general election since 1970, the year that Ted Heath promised voters a new Industrial Relations Act to curb the unions. Four years later he chose to call an early election to strengthen the government’s hand during the 1974 miners’ strike, having tried and failed to beat the NUM by instituting a 3-day week to save electricity.* Between 1979 and 1997, the Tories continuously invoked the “chaos” of 1970s industrial unrest as a reason not to trust Labour (supposedly weak on the unions) and even in 2010 Conservatives acted as if Gordon Brown wanted to bring back Red Robbo, a scheme they reprised in 2015.

The most common version of the story runs as follows. “The trade unions”, lead by unaccountable “union barons” (or in some versions, politically-motivated militants), effectively ran the country into the ground during the 1970s.

Like most convenient stories, it’s largely a myth built on a mere sprinkling of adjacent facts. Yes, there were more strikes in the 1970s, and yes, they did sometimes constrain governments when they tried to do things. But the idea that they ran the country is entirely preposterous. First off, trade unions in Britain had less access to formal political power than in most Northern European countries. In France, Germany, Sweden and others, trade union officials at all levels were actually expected to participate in planning at corporate, industrial and national levels. Second, for most of the post-war period British unions were around averagein the OECD for strike-proneness. So, not that powerful or that strike prone, and union power certainly isn’t a viable explanation for Britain’s economic decline relative to other Northern European states.

But that’s by the by. It’s politics, so I’d expect people to generate different interpretations of those events according to their wider belief system. Saying Thatcher saved Britain from the unions might be wildly inaccurate, but it sure is politically useful, so no shock to see it get wheeled out.

What really irritates me about our understanding of this period of politics is a smaller vice that sometimes both left and right share, namely, the idea that trade unions are “a thing”. That is, an abstract, unitary thing, that does stuff and has opinions and wields “power” as a single entity. Here’s Stephen Bush (whose work is generally way more insightful than a lot of journos working these days) doing it:

Now, Bush meant this is a positive way. He’s talking here about constraints on the government in terms of checks and balances. However, in doing so, he’s mis-reading the relationship between power and trade unionism in a way which is ultimately damaging to organised labour.

At no point in British history have unions per se wielded much power. In terms of the state they’ve rarely had more than informal access to political decision-making. In terms of their members, and this is crucial, no union has ever had the capacity to use workers like a disciplined army to raise hell whenever they didn’t like the government. Collective action in any workplace is risky, expensive (to the union and its members) and usually taken with great caution by those involved (even in the 1970s!). It is also fragile and prone to instant collapses in morale, to physical, emotional and financial exhaustion.

Consequently, one thing you almost never see in the 1970s are long strikes conceived by “union barons”, imposed on reluctant workers, then drawn out for political reasons. Indeed, most of the time the barons don’t want all-out strikes, they’d prefer to stick to token walk outs, demonstrations and collective bargaining. The majority of big disputes in that period came about because a large number of workers agitated for them and often because they started them, usually without permission from their leaders (a “wildcat” or “unofficial” strike). In most strikes, the big leaders were usually occupied desperately trying to get everyone back to work as quickly as possible. The legendary 1978–79 Winter of Discontent strike wave is a great example where union officials worked incredibly hard trying to get Ford workers, lorry drivers, local authority manual workers and NHS staff to stop striking, after their members had well exceeded the collective action the union had originally planned.

Unions didn’t (and don’t) have much control over their members and they didn’t have many formal rights to constrain government policy. In terms of power all they had was a shadow army of workers and the promise/threat that they may or may not be able to control them. Their negotiating power, their ability to constrain the government, was merely a reflection of the social power that workers had built by organising at the workplace. The barons could only tell the government (or the employer) “give in and hopefully we can persuade them to go back to work”. Unions had power because workers had power.

The big problem with using “trade unionists’ power” as essentially interchangeable with trade union power is twofold. Firstly, it’s used as one of the major building blocks of the “union destroyed the country” narrative*. Secondly, it seeps into how we talk about strikes in the present day. As most trade unionism in Britain is understood through the 1970s prism, most collective action is understood as deriving from unions as abstract institutions.

Here’s The Guardian doing it when quoting a Tory Minister on the Southern Rail strike this week:

Here “Unions” take actions and disrupt the lives of “the public”. The people involved in the action, the long debates they’ve had about whether it’s a good idea, the votes they’ve taken, the people they’ve persuaded. All that’s present is a wholly unsympathetic object, a squishy blob of symbols for us all to hate. The actual real humans, like this GWR cleaner (striking over a lack of sick pay) or the Argos workers denied their back pay or the Cabin Crew living on poverty wages***, are entirely absent. All we get are Unite (boooooo!), RMT (bastards!) and ASLEF (shaaaaame!), abstract institutions, who get little love. Worse, this treatment reinforces the idea, even amongst union members or potential members, that unions are institutions that do stuff for you rather than collectives of us and our actions.

The reality is that in strikes there are no conniving “union barons” and there is no “union power”, there’s no strict orders from Unite HQ or Unity House, there’s just people, desperately trying to draw on their union’s resources to organise collective action because they want change.

* One of the enduring myths about the 1970s is that strikes caused the 3-day week. Actually, the Heath Government instituted the 3-day week as a way of saving coal and putting political pressure on the miners’ to settle.

** The alternate version, involving “politically-motivated militants” at the workplace operates in a slightly different way but ultimately depends on the same idea — that “normal workers” have no say in strikes.

*** I hate to link to The Canary, but it’s sort of telling that they’re the only source I could quickly google who’d run an interview with a BA worker.