What do socialists say?
How to rebuild the trade unions
"UNIONS NOW find themselves in the most favourable political and economic context for more than 30 years." These were the words of John Monks, leader of the Trades Union Congress, last week. He welcomed a "surge" of recognition agreements with employers.
There is no doubt that there is a great opportunity to turn round a long decline in union membership. The new "Fairness at Work" laws, despite many flaws, give confidence to people trying to build membership and push for the union to have bargaining rights with employers.
There are already signs of the possibilities. Union membership rose 100,000 between autumn 1998 and autumn 1999, and the TUC predicts a similar rise for this year. The employment law firm Dibb Lupton Alsop (DLA) recorded 265 union recognition agreements over the last 12 months.
Pricecheck supermarket workers forced their bosses to accept the TGWU union. Deals won by the journalists' NUJ and the printers' GPMU unions are the result of hard campaigning and courageous struggle. But many are "partnership" deals where bosses and union officials come to a fairly cosy consensus. The DLA survey reported a "trade union frenzy of partnership approaches".
Of course nobody objects if firms cave in to real recognition without a fight. But some of the deals are like the AEEU union's "sweetheart" agreements, where the price of recognition is a union which agrees not to do anything which might upset the employer, like going on strike.
The union leaders have so far failed to make the most of the possibilities to build, frightened by the prospect of confrontation. Under the new laws there are two routes to union recognition. The first is to recruit at least 10 percent of a workforce and then call for a ballot among the rest. The union has to win a majority of those actually voting and at least 40 percent of those entitled to vote.
The second is for the union to recruit over 50 percent, and then declare this membership to the management and be granted automatic recognition. Unfortunately most unions have shied away from campaigns which will involve taking on employers and confrontation.
They would much rather restrict activity to discussions in the boardroom. So practically none of the union recognition campaigns are based on the balloting option, precisely because it can mean a battle with the bosses.
This greatly restricts what can be achieved. A union has to get members and build up to 50 percent with all the delay involved, which gives time to the company to harass, sack or otherwise "persuade" people to break from the union.
Sometimes this strategy wins recognition. Even then it is often because individual activists play a heroic role, not because of a push by union headquarters. At Tilda Rice in Rainham, Essex, a worker joined the firm and was dismayed by what he found.
He organised meetings at the factory gates, social clubs and won three quarters of the workforce to the GMB union. A recognition claim is pending. A major survey by Labour Research magazine showed most union drives were initiated by rank and file members, not by unions launching campaigns.
If there is to be a major revival of union numbers in Britain it will require taking on bosses who vehemently object. Real unions will not be recognised at Rupert Murdoch's Wapping plant without a considerable confrontation.
Struggle is not only necessary. It helps to build unions. Battles for improved terms and conditions show why people need unions, and why it is worth being a member. The postal and telecom workers' CWU, the union most closely associated with struggle in the recent period (whatever the union's leaders may wish), has recorded a big rise in membership-from 274,000 to 296,000 in the year to July.
Union members must demand a big shift in the fight for union recognition. On 6 June all the new laws came into force. It was supposed to be D-Day for unions. The response has been frankly pathetic.
It is not enough simply to devote more money to the budget heading called "membership and recruitment" or to hire a few more organisers. We need much more determined campaigns, and ones that do not flinch from a fight. Big unions such as the TGWU and the GMB have done virtually nothing on the ground to launch serious recruitment campaigns.
What happened to the promised union drives around the clothing sweatshops, or in catering, retail and hotels? Where are the serious efforts to recruit at call centres, or in manual workplaces where union membership has fallen away in the last decade?
The union leaders would no doubt like bigger and better rooted unions. But they fear what is needed to win them. The leaders' politics are getting in the way of building the unions. They need to be challenged.