British unions discuss their future

Issue 

By Max Anderson

LONDON — The Unions 94/Campaigning for the Future conference was held at Congress House on November 19, "to discuss how to restore the influence of trade unions in the political and economic climate of the 1990s".

In his opening address Trades Union Council general secretary John Monks said that British trade unionism had "been on the back foot for 15 years: we've been affected by legislation designed to break the power of the unions, by the growth of non-unionised service industries, and by mass unemployment".

But Monks pointed to recent victories achieved by the union movement: a long strike by railway signallers had ensured a negotiated settlement rather then their union's destruction, and the post office unions had humiliated the government by destroying its plans to privatise that industry. Companies were increasingly recognising the need to grant their employees a set of basic rights, and more and more workers were demanding the right to be represented by a union.

Monks went on to set out an agenda for the 1990s: "We must always speak for the weak and the poor. We have put full employment back on the agenda, and presented the chancellor with a budget for jobs ... We have to win the argument for a minimum wage, and for full-time rights for part-time workers."

Will Hutton, the economics editor of the Guardian, said that, after a decade and a half of ruinous monetarism, both the Labour Party and the unions were trying to replace "shareholder" with "stakeholder capitalism", as part of a project which will also involve "recasting the British state to relegitimise the union movement and create a larger framework of social and political citizenship".

Tony Blair, the leader of the Labour Party, in his speech said, "Labour market reform is part of an agenda to change politics in this country, since as the government becomes increasingly out of touch with the people, there is a political vacuum for the left of centre to fill. The British people have had enough of privatisation, and their main concern is to strengthen the economy ...

"Fairness for the trade union movement from a Labour government will be a big advance, as fairness and social justice have always been the goals of the Labour movement. However, in the past we have made the case for social justice apart from the case for economic efficiency, but the global market shows the need for us to compete through the skills of our work force, rather than with low wages."

At a workshop discussion on labour law, Bill Morris of the Transport Workers Union set out an alternative view to that of Hutton and Blair. He saw "no need to reinvent trade unionism, as the reasons for our existence, as organisations of working people, are obvious. We need to challenge the market to bring about social justice."

And where Blair stressed the need to "empower the individual", Morris thought, "Unions need to regain collective rights ... because in the world of work, unless you have collective rights, individual rights are meaningless".

He also took issue with one of the sound bites with which Blair's speech had been peppered: "The excesses of Murdoch and Maxwell won't be dealt with by 'fairness' ... The key thing is to address the 'democratic deficit' by introducing industrial democracy."

Another notable deficit is the gap between rich and poor, as unemployment, low pay and the inequities of the benefit system have trapped millions in poverty. At a workshop on the minimum wage, Richard Clements claimed that, as current levels of economic growth would not create full employment, a minimum wage by itself would "widen the division between those in and out of work". He advocated "a universal and untaxed citizens income".

The importance of international solidarity for the trade union movement was made explicit in a speech by Sam Shilowa, general secretary of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), who said that "the international trade union movement's help was crucial to the success of the ANC. At the moment, a government of national unity is necessary in South Africa, but we need to move towards empowering the entire nation. The recent strikes there were about the question of who is going to set the agenda for change, the unions or the employers."

Shilowa's message, that cooperation between trade unions and a government committed to achieving social justice can turn that aim into a reality, must have been an especially congenial one for Monks, who in a discussion paper said, "the countries in which trade unionism is a respected player in the formulation of employment and industrial strategies are the countries in which income inequalities are the narrowest, and where there is concerted action to tackle unemployment ... We need to get the TUC into a similar and influential position."

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