The Multinational Monitor


B R I T A I N ' S   T W I L I G H T

Tories Cripple Trade Unions

by David Brindle

LONDON, England - Under seven years of Conservative government, Britain's once-powerful unions have been brought to their knees.

Within a year after coming to power, the Conservatives - with Margaret Thatcher at their helm - were able to push through legislation restricting both the rights and influence of the country's unions. Devastating defeats in critical labor disputes and, perhaps most importantly, the erosion of Britain's industrial base, ensured that such moves effectively quashed the already beleaguered labor movement.

Since the Conservative Party took power in 1979, the number of workers represented by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the organization to which most of Britain's labor unions belong, has fallen almost a quarter from 12.2 million to 9.6 million.

The TUC's annual conference has in recent years been a dismal and ill-tempered affair. But this year, union leaders left the TUC conference at the coastal resort of Brighton in September in relatively good heart, having freshly cemented the TUC's traditional partnership with the opposition Labor Party. The Labor Party counts on unions for 80 percent of its income annually.

In some ways, the renewed commitment between the two was surprising. Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party's Leader, had delivered a stem speech to conference participants in which he made it clear that the era of union power had ended. A Labor government, he said, would not put any "vested interests" above the goal of creating one million jobs in two years. The unions could be a partner in this task, but they would be a junior partner. In short, his unmistakable message was: "I'm in charge."

The conference delegates, knowing their unions would be hard-pushed to survive a third Thatcher term, swallowed hard and gave Kinnock a standing ovation.

To appreciate the enormity of the change in the British labor movement in the past seven years, it is important to look back to the Conservative's victory in 1979. In the 197879 "winter of discontent," as it came to be known, bitter strikes by public service workers raged. In a few extreme instances, sensationalized by the British popular press, municipal graveyards and crematoria were closed by picketing. The power of the unions became a central issue in the 1979 general election when the Labor government was swept from office.

Since 1906, unions in Britain have had legal protection from suits for damages emanating from labor disputes; it was this unique system of immunities that the Thatcher administration set about dismantling with three pieces of legislation.

The 1980 Employment Act removed the unions' immunity from damage caused by pickets, except for demonstrations held by workers at their own place of employment. An associated code of practice, not legally binding but often regarded as such by police, limited the number of workers on a picket line to six. The 1982 Employment Act removed union immunity in cases of "secondary" action, subsequently interpreted by the courts as any strike or sanction affecting any employer other than the registered company at the center of a dispute. The act also placed severe limits on the "closed" or union shop, making mandatory union membership agreements subject to approval by 80 percent of the workers concerned. Finally, the 1984 Trade Union Act removed union immunity in any labor dispute where action was not first approved in a secret ballot by a majority of union members affected.

Previous attempts to bind and gag the unions had met with widespread opposition; this time, when the union leaders called for demonstrations and protest strikes, their members looked the other way.

Not only did many workers feel that events of the winter of discontent - real or as reported - justified the Conservatives' backlash against the unions, they were cowed by the sharp rise in unemployment and by the sobering experience of unions which tried to challenge the government.

These two factors came together most vividly in the 15 week steelworkers' strike against plant closures in 1980 - in retrospect a brave but futile attempt to preserve an industry in precipitate structural decline. With the government's blessing, the chairman of the state-run British Steel Corporation (BSC), Ian MacGregor, simply sat out the strike. Under his three-year stewardship, the BSC payroll fell from 166,000 to 85,000.

MacGregor, former chairman of the Amax Corporation and scourge of the United Mineworkers of America, and media magnate Rupert Murdoch were able to put Thatcher's new restrictions to work to inflict mortal injury to the already weakened British labor movement. Murdoch earlier this year provoked 5,500 News International printworkers to go on strike, then dismissed them and used the 1982 Employment Act to render unlawful virtually any effective resistance. After decimating the steelworkers, MacGregor moved in 1983 to the chairmanship of the National Coal Board, the public-owned mining industry. With the same goals and tactics he proceeded to deal the movement its most telling blow.

The ground for their attacks was prepared by the humbling of the skilled printworkers of the National Graphical Association, the aristocrats - in terms of both high pay and industrial muscle - of the TUC. A small strike in 1983 in Warrington, Cheshire, escalated into a cause celebre, and the union's funds were subsequently "sequestered" or seized for defiance of the 1980 and 1982 acts. Unprecedented police intervention assured the union's defeat.

These police tactics, including use of roadblocks to prevent workers from traveling to the sites of disputes, were perfected in the 358-day miners' strike in 1984-85 against MacGregor's plans to close down the coal mines. The police prevented strikers from other parts of Britain from going to the Nottinghamshire coalfield to pressure their fellow union members to join the dispute. If Nottinghamshire - where a majority of the miners were still working - had supported the strike, it might well have been won. Without the coalfield, the National Union' of Mineworkers (NUM) was fatally divided, sequestrated for defiance of the courts and, slowly but inexorably beaten.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the defeat of the NUM: the union that almost single-handedly brought down a Conservative government in 1974 and was legendary for its discipline and militancy. The NUM had been deliberately challenged and, amid bitterness and violence that will scar the coalfields for generations, had been routed in what will surely be the last labor dispute of its kind in Britain.

The miners' experience has confirmed the belief of most union leaders that their organizations must adapt or die. This belief was already growing in response to structural change in the British economy: as traditional manufacturing industry has collapsed, the proportion of the workforce in TUC unions has fallen from 53 percent in 1975 to as little as 40 percent today. Though such figures are high by U.S. standards, many of the country's emerging high-technology industries, where Japanese and U.S. employers are strongly represented, are poorly unionized and often anti-union. A survey of U.S.-owned companies in the "Silicon Glen" in Scotland showed that 63 percent of electronics plants are non-union, as are 86 percent of high-tech health care product companies.

So far, Labor has initiated two distinct strategies. First, pioneered by the electricians' union EETPU, came a form of U.S.-style business unionism, offering employers the opportunity to negotiate, with one union, agreements for all workers, assuring complete job flexibility and, in many instances, giving a commitment to settle disputes by means other than strikes - often through pendulum arbitration. The Amalgamated Engineering Union has signed a deal along these lines at the new Nissan automobile plant at Washington, Tyne and Wear.

A second tactic that has emerged is that of emphasizing legal protection for the individual, rather than the collective rights of union members. John Edmonds, the new young general secretary of the general workers' union GMBU and one of the first union leaders to have come from Oxford University instead of from the shopfloor, is a proponent of this shift. Edmonds predicts that within four years a six million-strong "new servant class" will be formed in the rapidly growing service sector. "We must accept that within the next decade trade unions are not going to be in a position to force contract cleaners, for example, to [offer] reasonable pay and conditions through traditional trade union organization," says Edmonds.

In the short term, however, the unions must bank on the return of a Labor government, which would repeal the Conservatives' legislation prohibiting immunity. The emphasis could then be shifted from union immunity to positive legal rights for workers.

The unions themselves have much to do to put Labor back into power. At the 1979 general election, only an estimated 51 percent of voting trade unionists supported the party. At the 1983 election, the proportion fell even further to 39 percent. If the unions fail to turn that tide, the Labor Party will have no chance in the next election. And with another five years of Thatcherism, Britain's unions may be unable to save themselves or the Labor Party.

David Brindle is the labor correspondent for the Financial Times of London.

Table of Contents