The best antidote to the Trade Union Bill is stronger activism

In the House of Lords second reading debate on 11 January 2016, former TUC General Secretary Lord John Monks warned that the Trade Union Bill ’is a mortal threat to some unions’.

It is a point of view that cannot be disputed by anyone who considers the recent research paper* ‘Strategy, Structure and Resourcing in UK Trade Unions’ by Paul Willman, Alex Byron and John Forth. This very informative and technical study updates empirical literature on trade union resources in the UK. It covers the period 2004 to 2013/14 providing a continuation of four similar studies dating back to 1936.

The main focus is on first and second order collective action problems, these being respectively ‘free riders’ and the cost of running the union and delivering services to members. What throws these problems into sharp relief is the likely impact of the Trade Union Bill on the business end of UK trade unionism, particularly in public services which accounts for only 17% of the overall workforce but contains over two-thirds of trade union members.

Free Riders

Individual workers who benefit from the product of collective bargaining but opt out from union membership have been a long term problem for unions in Britain.

In Charles Forman’s ‘Industrial Town’ (1978), a seminal study of manual and craft unionisation in the period leading up to the 1926 General Strike, a branch secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen in St Helens recalls: “the job was getting those men in the union. When I first started there was only 30 or 40 (members). We talked to the people we were working with, and we used to give them a form to fill in. There were some awkward folk. It wasn’t not wanting to be in, but it was paying the 6d a week subscription. It got to industrial action – there was a strike over it, one time. Like at our place, if a fellow was working there and wouldn’t join, the job he was on was stopped until he was taken off….You’re getting concessions, extra pay, and you’re not doing anything else for it.”

A closed shop arrangement whereby all workers employed are required to be and remain members of specified union/s was an effective response to this problem until the 1980’s when successive Conservative Government’s inflicted a staged demolition of the closed shop starting with the 1980 Employment Act – which legislated for a 80% ballot in order to legalise a closed shop – through to the 1992 Trade Union & Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act which made them unlawful. More recently, unions have offered bespoke individual membership benefits and representation to recruit and retain members.

The costs of collective action

Willman et al highlight that union finances can be a ‘key indicator of the viability of collective action’ and that union members ‘pay a very small proportion of their earnings as subscription and receive limited private goods in return.’

Over the past 80 years, regardless of the ebb and flow of membership levels, UK unions have struggled to raise sufficient income to cover expenditure often relying on investment income to balance the books. The business model in 2014 was more or less the same as that which existed in 1936!

However a key variable is what the authors refer to as ‘off balance sheet’ resources essentially the voluntary activist base and employer support. The latter includes check off of union subscriptions (DOCAS) and management recommendation of union membership (both remain prevalent in public services but subject to slight decline since 1984). This highlights the strategic nature of the attack presented by the 2015 Trade Union Bill.

The huge financial impact of the Trade Union Bill has been documented in a recent Government impact assessment. TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady commented that “the government has underestimated the true financial impact this Bill could have for unions. However, even by its own estimates unions and their members are set to be hit with a stonking upfront bill of over £11million, followed by £26million more over the next five years. UK trade unions are already the most heavily regulated in Western Europe. This Bill is a blatant attempt to make it harder for workers to stand up for decent services and safety at work, or defend their jobs and pay.”

The report identifies the proposed abolition of DOCAS, additional balloting costs and future regulatory changes to facility time as likely to have a ‘substantial impact on a financially weak set of unions.’ As finances become squeezed a strategic challenge for unions will be to reduce ‘on balance sheet’ running costs and base collective action strategies on committed networks of workplace activists.

Gregor Gall identified in his IER pamphlet ‘Union organising and the health of the union movement in Britain’ (2010), that unions need to be “much more masters of their own destinies by focusing upon the foundation stones of their own potential power, namely, their own members and to do so where the members were located i.e. their workplaces, and by means of collectivism and mobilisation”. There can be no better response to the onslaught of the Conservative Government than to reaffirm our commitment to that model of organising. The best antidote to the Trade Union Bill is stronger activism.

* presented at the LERA Conference, San Francisco on 4th January 2016.

Kevan Nelson


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