The state of the unions today

crocadile tears
There is no doubt that the election of a majority Conservative government in May was a considerable setback for working people. Under Ed Miliband, the Labour Party were proposing a number of positive reforms to employment law that would have improved rights at work, and tackled some of the more pernicious and exploitative aspects of the current labour market: where millions suffer from low pay, zero hour contracts, and bullying bosses.

The new Conservative government has made clear its intent to make it harder to organize lawful industrial action, to quote Professor Gregor Gall:

the Queen’s Speech in late May set out two new rules. The first requires at least half of eligible union members to vote so that a minimum turnout is established. The second is that in essential public services (health, education, fire and transport), there will also be the requirement that at least 40% of all those entitled to vote must vote for action (meaning that non-voters are treated as ‘no’ voters). These reforms (along with others on the repeal of the restrictions banning employers from hiring agency staff to provide essential cover during strikes; ensuring strikes cannot be called on the basis of ballot mandates ‘conducted years before’ and tackling alleged intimidation of non-striking workers) will be laid before Parliament as the Trade Union Bill later this year.

The response from the TUC was apocalyptic:

The TUC’s General Secretary Frances O’Grady said these new laws would benefit the country’s “worst bosses” and that they would “make legal strikes close to impossible”, adding “union negotiators will be left with no more power than Oliver Twist when he asked for more.”

This was a strange and ill advised response from the General Secretary, and raises the question of how unions will recruit and retain members if they are seen as so ineffectual. Of course the proposed changes to the law need to be opposed and challenged, politically, legally and industrially, but unions will always adapt, survive and innovate to overcome obstacles.

Before we consider the current state of trade unions it is worth reflecting upon the fact that the proposed restrictions by Cameron’s government are still less restrictive than the Trades Disputes Act 1927, which was not repealed until 1946, and which made unlawful any strike whose purpose was to coerce the government of the day directly or indirectly, made incitement to participate in an unlawful strike a criminal offence, punishable by imprisonment for up to two years, banned mass picketing, banned civil service unions from affiliating to the TUC, or having any political objectives.

Nevertheless, while that draconian act was in force, trade union membership doubled, and broke into new industries which had been considered unorganisable, such as the new aircraft and car factories.long term trade union trends

British trade unions built their strength against far more unfavourable conditions than we have today, indeed we will shortly be celebrating the memory of the Tolpuddle martyrs, deported to Australia for organizing. A battle which the trade unions won.

It is necessary to acknowledge that for many groups of organized workers, meeting the proposed new ballot thresholds will be straightforward.

Where it will be a challenge will be those parts of the public sector where either membership density is insufficiently strong, or where workplace organisation is weak. We will need to give this careful consideration, and in particular strengthen organisation where we can.

It is reasonable to question, for example, the effectiveness of the PCS strategy of continued industrial action against the government on low ballot turnouts, that are poorly observed by the members, and which seem to have limited leverage.

Of course, while industrial action is the indispensible foundation upon which trade union strength is ultimately built, in the modern world, many companies have built substantial investment into the value of their brand, and are susceptible to bad publicity. The Carr report, commissioned by the coalition government to discuss the type of trade union campaigns which Unite have called “leverage” was very interesting.

In evidence to Carr, Pinsent Masons LLP described “leverage” as

“an umbrella term for any action (other than traditional forms of industrial action) by a trade union which aims to put pressure on an employer to settle a trade dispute or otherwise meet the union’s demands. Leverage tactics may be used in addition to or instead of traditional industrial action, and may be used for example before a trade dispute is officially declared. Leverage tactics typically seek to pressurise and commercially embarrass employers through targeted campaigns aimed at shareholders, customers and business partners, suppliers and the general public.

Employers regard such tactics with trepidation, as “extreme”. Again giving evidence to the Carr inquiry

The Engineering and Construction Industry Association (ECIA) offered the following description: “‘Leverage tactics’, which can also be ‘extreme tactics’, seek to extend the intimidation and disruption to those parties indirectly involved, such as shareholders, suppliers and customers; and seek publicity through the media to make public the discomfort they are causing – in attempts to embarrass and further intimidate.”

Industrial action is an important component of any trade union’s armory, but often it is necessary to look for other weaknesses to incentivize an employer to change their position.We need to understand that no particular form of action by a union is more virtuous than another. As Von Clauswitz observed, war is diplomacy by other means, but the meaning of that aphorism is the acknowledgement that every war results in a negotiated settlement, once the war itself has altered the various bargaining positions of the combatants.

Interestingly, the Carr Report discussed Unite’s campaigns but not GMB’s, and I think that this is partly attributable to the more media savvy approach of GMB, that taking a slightly humorous, or cheeky approach makes it harder for the employer to pose as an aggrieved victim.

For example, when AA was taken over by the asset stripping private equity boss, Damon Buffini, and GMB were derecognized in favour of a scab staff association, the current Southern Regional secretary Paul Maloney, responded by lobbying parishioners of the Holy Trinity Church, Clapham Common on the asset stripping activities of Damon Buffini. They were accompanied by a live camel. This was to illustrate that biblical quotation about it being “easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven”. Buffini was associated with this church and was then estimated to be worth between £20/40 million.

The result was to push a complex story of private equity into a media friendly format, for example in the Daily Mail

the GMB purposefully chose to personalise the issue. The ins and outs of private equity finance are highly complex, but by directly linking the millionaires at the top with the newly-jobless at the bottom, it has managed to catch the public’s attention.

Paul Maloney is the GMB’s National Organiser for the AA and makes no bones about the campaign he has overseen: ‘Before we found out about Buffini, he was a hidden man. He’d just made thousands of people redundant but nobody knew about him. He was the spirit behind the evil, as it were. So we decided to make him the focus of our campaign.

The Carr report interestingly includes the views of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) that for protests which are not pickets there is no distinction between protests associated with an industrial dispute, and protests which are not. It is therefore extremely challenging for the government to restrict protests by trade unions without curtailing those civil liberties consistent with the exercise of freedom of speech and association in a liberal democracy.

One of the achievements of the Paul Kenny era in the GMB, is the GMB@work strategy, which recognizes that there is a fundamental and ultimately irreconcilable conflict of interest between employers and employees, and therefore trade unions need to be always organized to conduct lawful industrial action, if necessary. Of course this does not preclude modern, professional and constructive relations between the union and employers to their mutual benefit of securing harmonious industrial relations, but this is a relationship of equals, and therefore the union needs teeth behind the smile.

As with any culture change, the implementation of GMB@work has not been uniform across the union, and indeed the relative rates of growth of different GMB regions allows a comparison of the effectiveness of GMB@work. It is in Southern Region where GMB@work has been embraced, which has involved standing up to tough employers, and often organizing low paid workers in precarious employment. GMB has shown that this can be done, for example we recently achieved recognition with an employment agency exploiting workers in the Marks and Spencer supply chain in Swindon.

Following continued membership growth in June, GMB Southern has now become the second largest region in the Union with 82,447 members. This follows a period of record growth where the region has increased its membership by 9837 members (Equivalent to 13.6%) since September 2012.

The growth in membership has followed a series of high profile campaigns within the Region, for example:
Leading the campaign against low wages and poor treatment of staff in Next
• Protesting against tax evasion and poor treatment of staff by Amazon and Starbucks
• Winning an 8.7% pay rise and full Agenda for Change Terms and conditions for caterers, cleaners and porters at Woolwich hospital
Leading the campaign and petition against Michel Gove’s planned teaching assistant cuts
Achieving the living wage for cleaning staff at the University of Arts London
Winning a campaign against redundancies & poor wages at an NHS contractor in Brighton. The Contract is now returning in house
Preventing the privatisation of London Fire Control centre in Merton
Seeing off cuts of £4000 a year to refuse workers wages in Brighton
Winning legal action to prevent wage cuts of up to £16,000 a year for care workers employed by Prospect housing in Surrey
Forcing the MOD to stick to their deal with Gurkha staff
Taking legal and industrial action to support staff employed at Swindon Hospital by blacklister Carillion

To quote Paul Maloney himself:

“The growth of 10,000 members since September 2012 is no accident and followed a process of dedicated organising by everybody within the region. This has been achieved solely by the efforts of members, activists and staff and shows that where we take on unscrupulous employers we will win and grow the union in the process.
This is good news for GMB, good news for the movement as a whole and shows that there is no need for any union to be managing decline. ”

20 comments on “The state of the unions today

  1. Karl Stewart on said:

    Some interesting and thought-provoking points there Andy.

    I must say I largely agree with your analysis of the specific part of the new Government’s proposed legislation that deals with the introduction of turnout and majority thresholds.

    In the few weeks since the election, there have been relatively high-profile strike ballots held by rail unions RMT and ASLEF, steelworkers belonging to the Community union and NUT teachers – every one of those ballots comfortably surpassed the proposed turnout and majority thresholds.

    So, yes of course these new Tory laws need to be actively and vigorously opposed, but to worry that the new thresholds could render our unions ineffective is quite an exaggeration. Indeed the “apocalyptic” response risks inadvertently giving an impression of weakness and defeatism.

    Having said that, the thresholds do still need to be opposed. While the “headline” thresholds themselves are not a problem for a union that has a reasonably strong frontline organisation, the existence of statutory thresholds could, potentially give employers a legal loophole to deliberately gerrymander “constituencies” – perhaps by sudden internal “restructuring” which could alter the size and membership of particular business groups and thereby placing a legitimate ballot result out of “threshold”.

    The other extremely worrying part of the legislation, and one which has not received as much attention as the thresholds, is the restoration to the employer of the legal right to hire a replacement workforce to replace strikers.

    The removal of that right by the last Labour government actually made a significant difference to the practical, on the ground, ability of the employer to ride out a strike. Employers, in the main, have had to rely on the deployment of their existing human resources to break, or reduce the impact of action – most often by using supervisory or managerial employees as strike-breakers. Something which has necessarily caused stresses and strains to other, non-strike hit parts of their operations.

    With the restoration of their ability to hire scabs wholesale from agencies, this particular part of the legislation could be the most significant in terms of its impact on the balance of power.

    For these reasons, in any united campaign against the new laws, this “scabs charter” should be the central focus, not the headline thresholds.

    With regard to the specific points you’ve made about GMB, and in particular about your own particular region of the union, one canot be other than impressed with those growth stats.

    How does this compare with the GMB’s other regions? And is the overall picture different across the different industrial sectors the union organises in?

  2. Andy H on said:

    My experience is that the new rules would stuff the PCS as a large chunk of their members join for the insurance and because of the collective bargaining in my experience . They don’t share any of the leaderships political views or ambitions for strikes and ignore the strike ballots and strikes as they are not interested. I think PCS are going to have a tough time simply engaging enough of their membership to pass the threshold. from my time as a civil servant is not that a lot of them members just need a bit of organisation or chivying, they are not, don’t ever want to be ( and may never be) the kind of trade unionists that the leadership think they should be.

  3. Andy Newman on said:

    Karl Stewart,

    On the question abiut GMB regions, Southern is the only region exhibiting that level if growth.

    The change regarding agencies is symbolic, because employers already do use agency staff to undermine strikes, and the regulatory body for employment agencies has never once acted, despite unions lodging complaints in the prescribed manner

  4. Andy Newman on said:

    Andy H,

    I think it is plausible that PCS is the deliberate target of this proposed legislation, and the union’s leadership have – as you say – embarked on a strategy that they cannot deliver, because they are not taking the members with them

  5. Karl Stewart on said:

    I don’t think the Tories’ manifesto pledge to restore employers’ right to employ a replacement workforce during a strike is “symbolic”. It’s a highly significant step.

    Before the last Labour government, It had been completely legal for an employer to fire its whole workforce and to employ a replacement workforce.

    This was done by Rupert Murdoch to the Wapping printers in 1986, became a coomon practice, and was still being done by employers 10 years later – the Liverpool dockers in 1996.

    The legislation brought in by Labour to tackle this was, yes of course not as strong and as comprehensive as it could and should have been, and yes of course enforcement could and should have been more vigilant.

    So yes, employers have sought loopholes – but we haven’t had “Wappings” or “Liverpools” since this legislation came in.

    So this is a significant step, but a strong and coherent case can be made against it – and, unlike the headline thresholds, the fight against this “scabs charter” does have the potential to gain some real traction.

  6. Andy Newman on said:

    Karl Stewart,

    I think you are mixing up two issues.

    The temporary recruitment of agency workers to cover strikers is unlawful, but not only do the regulations have loopholes that allow avoidance, but the regulatory body doesnt enforce it.

    Restoring this “right” to employers would be annoying, but not a substsbtial game changer.

    The dismissal of workers engaged in lawful industrial action is automatically unfair, within 12 weeks protection. The Employment Tribunals have interpreted this helpfully, as giving both sides an opportunity to resolve differences in the interest of good industrial relations, and are not sympathetic to employer abuse.

    Only one company, to my knowledge, Friction Dynamics, has sacked a striking workforce in modern times, and they shut the factory to thwart yhe union. They were not able to replace the workforce and continue trading as you suggest.

    The Conservatives are not proposing removing that immunity from dusmissal within the protected period

  7. Richard T on said:

    I think both Andy’s are a little out-of-date with their analysis of PCS tactics. As a current member, I’m struggling to recall the last PCS ballot and strike, so to suggest that “continued action” on “low ballot turnouts” without quoting examples is a little unfair.

    Indeed, the recent high-profile action that springs to mind, the National Gallery campaign, would’ve smashed the new proposed turnout limits and had 94% in favour. Further, the most recent cross-govnt attack on members that I would’ve expected a national ballot to be held over – forcing members to switch to Direct Debit instead of having subs deducted from wages – has been fought through the hard work of members and reps in the offices, rather than the picket line.

    Maybe this is a concious rebooting of approach to make a future Unite merger more palatable to the Labour soft left, but the ‘two day’ isolated PCS strikes appear to be a thing of the past. I agree it wasn’t always successful but worth remembering that the last time it looked to be getting results – the public sector pensions strike of a few years ago – it was dissolved by other unions gradually pulling back. But that’s a debate I think we’ve all had before…

  8. Richard T: As a current member, I’m struggling to recall the last PCS ballot and strike, so to suggest that “continued action” on “low ballot turnouts” without quoting examples is a little unfair.

    Don’t be disingenuous. PCS called national strikes in July and October 2014, i.e, two national strikes within the last 12 months, achieving a strike turnout on each occasion of about 17%.

    These strikes were called based upon a strike mandate of a 60% yes vote, on a 28% turnout, in 2013.

    i.e, this whole campaign seemed determined to demonstrate to the government the relative weakness of PCS, rather than its strength.

  9. Richard T: the last time it looked to be getting results – the public sector pensions strike of a few years ago – it was dissolved by other unions gradually pulling back

    This shows the findamental problem with the political assumptions behind the PCS campaign. Unison and GMB didn’t “gradualy pull back”, we achieved a better offer on the seperate LGPS, after one days national strike action, and therefore gaining enough that our members regarded that we had effectively won our dispute.

  10. nattyfoc on said:

    Andy Newman: This shows the findamental problem with the political assumptions behind the PCS campaign. Unison and GMB didn’t “gradualy pull back”, we achieved a better offer on the seperate LGPS, after one days national strike action, and therefore gaining enough that our members regarded that we had effectively won our dispute.

    Even GMB National officers were embarassed by the abandoning of PCS in that dispute.

    The State of Unions today Un democratic, poorly organised, amateurish, in -effective!

    You wont be surprised that i believe that the Pre entry closed shop was as good as it got and needs reciprocating!

    Until Unions control the working enviroment absolutely they are destined to be as useless as they are at the moment.

    40% turn out in a ballot we always got 90+% Dont vote you get fined !

    Poor attendance at meetings expel them is the policy that works.

    Dont attend meetings your out of work !

    All officers elected every 3 years no exceptions and all elections open to all members to stand in and vote in!

    If your a member you will participate in Union business otherwise your not welcome no room for cardholders attending 4 Chapel meetings a Year total time commitment 18 hrs hardly excessive to secure and organise your livlihood is it ?IE the livlihood you currently enjoy and created for you by previous members attending and participating in Chapel meetings ……… told !

    Regional meetings maybe twice a year another 6hrs and you know what your paid to attend.

    Accept a redundancy against the wishes of your chapel region your expelled for LIFE no exceptions that job sunshine was yours until you retire and then its passed on remember you inherited it !

    All meetings to be Chaired as per the Lay down in the ABC of Chairmanship by Sir Walter Citrine so many meeting just disintegrate in todays Unions because no one can chair them even at National level i once watched and pulled up a Chair in the GMB who was taking a motions debate prior to a notified ammendment.

    Todays Unions need a kick up the arris lol

  11. Richard T on said:

    Andy Newman: These strikes were called based upon a strike mandate of a 60% yes vote, on a 28% turnout, in 2013.

    March 2013 seems like a long time ago to me Andy! Must be all the crap we’ve had to deal with since then.

    To be honest, I’m more interested in the here and now, and tactics to help a reinvigorated PCS stand up to this government’s outrageous attacks on members and the poor. Another excellent example announced today, hot off the press: 84% of frontline Universal Credit staff voting in favour of a strike, smashing the proposed new ballot laws:

    This would even pass the new strike laws if IDS was to declare UC an emergency service… (insert your own punchline)

  12. Pete Jones on said:

    #6 “The change regarding agencies is symbolic”
    How often have you gone through this Andy? In my experience I has been an effective deterrent to agencies. Bad publicity is bad for business.

  13. Karl Stewart on said:

    I don’t think a law which effectively prevented more “Wappings” and “Liverpools” can be dismissed as “symbolic”.

    I was involved in a strike in an engineering company before this law came in and the employer hired scab labour from an agency during the strike. After three weeks on strike, the employer wrote to all staff threatening dismissal unless they returned to work. It had the desired effect.

    The “Wapping” tactic rapidly became quite widespread and the Labour government’s legislation outlawing this has been effective in real terms, on the ground.

    As well as the practical difference it has made, there is also the perception that an employer is now acting “illegally” by using scab labour during a strike, even where they are doing this through a loophole in the law. This can help to undermine any other legal action the employer may take against the strikers.

    I think a focus on this “strikebreakers’ charter” could well win strong support among members and wider. We could even win better legislation ultimately.

  14. Pete Jones,

    I have personal experience of it a few times, you are correct that writing to agencies warning them off has been a useful tactic, but even under current legislation there are a number of avoidance techniques routinely used, and the enforcement is woefully slack.

    Of course it would be better for the law not to be changed, but let us not get over excited about something that is unlikely to fundamentally alter the effectiveness of industrial action.

  15. Robert p Williams on said:

    So Labour are agreeing with the ‘difficult decision’ to cap public sector pay at 1%…. Couldn’t the millions given to Labour by the trade unions be better spent on defending their members pay?

  16. nattyfoc on said:

    Robert p Williams:
    So Labour are agreeing with the ‘difficult decision’ to cap public sector pay at 1%…. Couldn’t the millions given to Labour by the trade unions be better spent on defending their members pay?

    Typical of the middle class freeloaders that have kidnapped the Labour Party in the last 30 years!

    In London today a total shut down of all tube services by strikers, well done all involved to be honest i was apprehensive of Scabs spoiling the Day but it is going brilliantly. And amazingly the BBC were broadcasting comments from commuters SUPPORTING the Strikers in their struggle something i can never recall occurring previously on the day of a Tube Strike ……….i wonder why they did that?

    References to Wapping and the plot that took us out remember it was aided and abetted by the TUC and the Labour Party under the windbag Kinnock and Baroness Brenda Dean ………………..knighthood anyone ??

  17. paulm on said:

    Andy Newman, ‘I think it is plausible that PCS is the deliberate target of this proposed legislation, and the union’s leadership have – as you say – embarked on a strategy that they cannot deliver, because they are not taking the members with them’
    The facts suggest you’re wrong there, the most recent example being the ballot of Universal Credit staff :

    ‘The ballot, which ran until the 6th of July, would have beaten the proposed anti-union legislation announced by the government yesterday.

    ‘PCS represents 80% of staff in across both sites. On a turnout of 56%, 84% voted for strike action and 90% for action short of a strike, beating both the proposed 50% turnout and the 40% in-favour quota.’

  18. Pingback: Stop British anti-trade union law plans, says Tolpuddle martyrs’ festival | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  19. nattyfoc on said:

    I would have more faith in the TUC if they expelled all Unions that sign NO STRIKE DEALS!

    Seems perverse to object to a law that your signing of sweet heart deals renders of no account ……………………the only Union i know for sure signing these despicable deals is the GMB but i have heard the USDAW are upto the same disgraceful activities? Does anyone know for sure or can anyone name any other Unions betraying the movement recently by signing these No Strike deals ??