[Book] In the Cause of Labour - A History of British Trade Unionism

Future of the Unions

Having traced the history of British trade unionism for the course of two centuries, it is perhaps time to draw a balance sheet and ask what are the prospects that lie before the trade union and Labour movement.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and particularly since 11 September 2001, we have entered the most turbulent period on a world scale since the 1930s. It is an epoch of enormous instability – economic, political, military and diplomatic – of wars, economic decline and crises. We have not long emerged from a bloody war in the Gulf, waged in the name of “democracy”. But rather than peace and democracy, a prolonged period of bloody conflict opens up for the people of Iraq and the “coalition” forces.

This war has greatly increased instability worldwide, and especially in the Middle East. It is the prelude to new wars and conflicts to be waged by American imperialism in an attempt to dominate the planet in its own interests. The neo-conservative clique around Bush talks about a “Project for a New American Century”. Astonishingly, the aggressive policies of the Bush administration, like a bull in a china shop, have swiftly undermined the whole basis of world relations established since the Second World War.

Underlying all this instability is a serious economic crisis.

“The global economy is in recession, stocks are in a bear market and the dollar is in decline”, states the financial tycoon George Soros. “In the US, there has been a dramatic shift from budget surplus to deficit. It is difficult to find a time when political and economic conditions have deteriorated as rapidly.”[1]

Thus, globalisation, the old buzzword of the last period, now expresses itself as a global crisis of capitalism.

The present economic slowdown has pushed both Japan and Germany, the world’s main economies after the USA, into a deflationary spiral. Everywhere growth rates have been slashed, as the world economy rests upon the unsound foundations of the American economy.

Stock markets suffer from constant and violent gyrations, which wipe billions off share values at a stroke, slashing pension funds, and destroying future livelihoods in the process. Even in periods of recovery, the world of work has become a nightmare for millions of workers. The modern Taylorism, known as “lean production”, has resulted in increased casualisation, characterised by precious little employment protection and chronic insecurity throughout the labour force. 80 per cent of part-time workers are women, doubly oppressed and many forced to work on minimum wages. Immigrant workers, driven into menial jobs with no rights, are viciously exploited by unscrupulous employers. This intensified exploitation has affected white-collar and blue-collar workers alike. The crude and brutal culture of “market forces” is being introduced into schools, hospitals and old peoples’ homes.

As Marx explained, there are definite material reasons for the movement of the working class. Workers do not strike, demonstrate, or take action for the sake of it. They will only move into action when all other options are exhausted. The idea that workers can be dragooned into struggle against their will is a myth. In the inter-war period and in the first half of the 1970s, many workers were beginning to draw radical and even revolutionary conclusions from their experience. But this has not generally been the case over the last twenty years. In the absence of a serious leadership, many workers attempted to find a way out through individual solutions.

This was particularly the case in Britain, where the “religion of capitalist progress” had penetrated deep into the consciousness of society. Although they were subjected to increased exploitation, the working class was prepared to accept this – at least for a time – as the price for higher wages. A layer of workers opted for early redundancy as an opportunity to get out of work before things got worse. Applications for voluntary redundancy were over-subscribed at British Telecom, Ford Dagenham, Rover, Royal Mail and many other companies facing rationalisation or closure. This was the inevitable consequence of the absence of a lead from the tops of the unions.

The economic boom throughout the 1980s played an important role in determining the outcome of events. The economy certainly played a role in the election victories of the Tories in 1983, 1987 and again in 1992. In general, boom periods of capitalism, even those of a short duration, have an effect upon the consciousness of the working class. They tend to reinforce illusions in the capitalist system. This process was further reinforced by the collapse of Stalinism, and the accompanying ideological offensive against the ideas of socialism and class struggle.

This situation affected the psychology of all classes. The middle class tended to follow the bourgeoisie and its “market” ideology, and even the working class saw no alternative to what was offered to them. During the boom, despite the extreme pressure on the workers, the personal debt, low wages, the long hours of over-work, stress and exhaustion, it was possible for a temporary period for some to obtain a relative amelioration in living standards.

The strength of reformism, and particularly its right wing, was predicated on a combination of these economic factors, past defeats and a lack of leadership from the mass organisations. Nevertheless, these illusions inevitably break down in the end, as the workers continually come face to face with reality. Working people generally want very little out of life – a job, reasonable pay, a roof over their head and a decent education for their children. However, under conditions of capitalist crisis, even these modest requirements are not guaranteed.

As the crisis of capitalism deepens, the ruling class seeks to unburden its problems onto the backs of the working class. Experience has shown that big business is determined to take back the reforms won by the British workers. For every step back the workers make, the employers demand two or three more. Today, the right to a reasonable retirement has been undermined and even a pension at 65 is under threat. Even where concessions are squeezed from the bosses, they are never long lasting. The day-to-day struggle for reforms, and the fight against counter-reforms, must therefore be linked with the need to change society.


The old reformist idea of partnership (that is, class collaboration) is completely out of step with present-day reality. There are many examples of this. In the steel industry, for instance, the trade unions were drawn into so-called participation with management. As a result, the unions have been forced to carry out attacks on their own members. A letter in The Financial Times from John Grieve Smith, the Director of Planning in British Steel, 1968-80, revealed how these “worker directors” were duped.

“We had employee directors, initially on the divisional boards and later on the main board,” stated Smith. “They were in a difficult situation at a time when the industry was going through a significant (and long-overdue) period of modernisation and restructuring, which involved the closure of more than 30 outdated open hearth plants and their replacement by five large oxygen steel making plants. But despite the conflicting pressures of the shopfloor and the boardroom, they played a vital role in enabling these massive changes to go ahead smoothly and with a large measure of agreement. I also found that trade union representatives on the supervisory boards of continental steel companies played a significant role.”[2]

These agreed changes led to mass sackings and the destruction of tens of thousands of steelworkers’ jobs.

Today, after all the sacrifices made by steelworkers, the bosses are coming back for more. Corus, the consortium of private British and Dutch steel interests, after cutting 10,000 jobs, are planning to axe several thousand more in order to reduce costs. They are the modern Luddites, destroying the workers’ livelihoods wherever they go. Yet, to quote the words of The Financial Times, the steel unions instead of planning a militant counter-offensive, simply expressed “disquiet” at the possibility of large-scale job losses.[3]

This sums up the discredited tactics of “New Realism”. The philosophy that says that the dictates of the market must be accepted without question has resulted in agreements being torn up, workplaces closed and millions of workers put on the dole. Both Tory and Labour governments have been guilty of massaging unemployment figures, but mass unemployment in Britain remains a cancer of society, especially in areas once reliant on heavy industry. The trade union leaders constantly try to reach an accommodation with the ruling class. But the capitalists are never satisfied.

In the past, the trade unions served to raise the living standards of the working class. They played a leading role in securing the democratic rights and civil liberties we enjoy today. These achievements gave the trade unions tremendous authority in the eyes of workers. Over time, however, the tactics of the ruling class towards the unions changed. The British bourgeoisie became very astute in its dealings with the workers’ movement. They replaced the early policy of repression against the trade unions with a combination of repression and concession. Above all, the ruling class systematically sought to buy off and corrupt the Labour and trade union leaders, and draw them into the web of the capitalist system.

Lenin noted that without the support of the Labour and trade union leaders, capitalism would not last six weeks. What the ruling class failed to achieve by repression, they achieved by pressure, manipulation and corruption, sometimes subtle, and sometimes not so subtle. All kinds of influences were brought to bear to draw the Labour and trade union leaders into ruling class circles and weaken their ties with the working class. They were made to feel very “important” and statesmanlike:

“They praise him to the skies if he nibbles at the bait, and they give him a good brushing the wrong way if he takes the slightest step against the bourgeoisie”, wrote Trotsky. “And this does not just happen once, but day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-in and year-out.”[4]

A section of the leaders began to enjoy a lifestyle increasingly divorced from the rank and file. Their salaries were much higher than those of the average members. Some had lucrative part-time jobs on government quangos and the like. In the AEEU, the officials received “golden handshakes” worth hundreds of thousands of pounds on retirement. One such union official, Charlie McKenzie, was set to leave his job with a corporate-style £320,000 deal plus a union car. He was Sir Ken Jackson’s campaign manager (where he was accused of being involved in ballot rigging) and was to receive his full salary for the following five years. The deal was scaled down after an outcry by union members, but was still very substantial.

Quite a few of these careerists accepted knighthoods, peerages and the like for services rendered. We recall the cases of Lord Carron, Lord Cooper, Lord Chapple, Lord Scanlon, Sir Sidney Greene, and so on. The list is very long. Sir Bill Connor, leader of the (low-paid) shopworkers’ union USDAW, was knighted in the New Years’ Honour’s List, for his contribution to “industrial relations”. Blair likewise honoured Bill Morris with a “well-deserved” knighthood.

The poison of careerism has always had a corrosive influence in the Labour and trade union movement. Many officials are appointed and not elected, making nonsense of accountability. In the past many were elected for life. Their role as “mediators” in the class struggle pushed them to seek compromises with the bosses, and to take the line of least resistance wherever possible. “If you face most of the present trade union leaders with faeces in the street – in other words with revolution – they would wet themselves”, as one Whitehall insider told The Times.[5] Given their social position, increasingly isolated from the pressures of working life, the trade union bureaucracy tended to act more and more as policemen over their rank and file. Strikes and militancy were viewed as an inconvenience for the officials’ daily routine. Unwilling to struggle, they justified the signing away of rights and conditions through “sweet-heart” deals and “flexibility” arrangements, as if there was no alternative.

In the AEEU militants were isolated, sidelined and victimised. They were seen as potential enemies, just as in the days of Carron and Chapple. Some were expelled from the unions on trumped-up charges. Moreover, this practice is far from over, as shown by the recent suspension and removal of two ATGWU officials – Mick O’Reilly and Eugene McGlone in Northern Ireland. This high-handed action was decided by Bill Morris, without consultation with the General Executive Council or the Irish Regional Committee. Although they were reinstated into different jobs after a campaign within the union, these bureaucratic attacks threatened to destabilise a major trade union, which in the context of Ireland, is non-sectarian and has long been a force for working class unity.


For a whole period the pendulum in the British Labour movement swung far to the right. But now this process has reached its limits and the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction. The election victories for the Left within the unions demonstrate that the whole process is being thrown into reverse. New younger layers are coming into activity and serving to revive and replenish the branches and shop stewards’ committees. The left wing will revive and grow under these conditions and articulate the aspirations of the rank and file. As workers move into action through their unions, the Broad Left organisations will take on flesh and act as a spearhead for the further transformation of these organisations. The existing leaders will either place themselves at the head of this movement, or they will be replaced by the ranks.

Some have taken the view that the reshaping of the British labour force since the 1970s (and longer) indicates a sharp and irreversible decline in the strength and militancy of the working class. This was the stock argument of the Jeremiahs, such as professor Eric Hobsbawn. It is true that there have been many changes over the last couple of decades as white-collar jobs have boomed at the expense of blue-collar jobs. The first decades of the twentieth century saw important changes in the workforce with the introduction of Fordism and mass production. From the Second World War onwards, there has been a steady contraction in the numbers employed in manufacturing industry, while service industries have expanded. While the numbers employed in steel, cars, textiles shipbuilding, heavy engineering and mining declined, new industries have emerged based upon new technologies, such as nuclear power, computers, fibre optics, and related IT sectors, such as mobile phones. But this does not mean the demise of the working class. In fact the working class is not shrinking, but expanding, as can be seen from the record number of workers in Britain. It is true these are predominantly low-wage, low-skill jobs, which reflects the decline of British capitalism. The working class is continually evolving in different directions according to the needs of the capitalist system. New industries arise, while others fall and are replaced. This has always been the case, ever since the demise of the handloom weaver in the early nineteenth century.

As a result, call centres, resembling giant factories, have sprung up to meet the needs of the new industries and their demands for 24-hour service. While this poses new problems and challenges for trade union organisation, they are not at all insurmountable. In reality, these layers are wide open to trade union organisation if approached correctly. Throughout history the leaders of the trade unions have always regarded certain groups of workers as beyond their reach. In the 1860s and 1870s, it was said that the unskilled workers could not be organised in unions. Irish immigrants were also placed in the same category. The same was supposed to be true of women workers. Again, those employed in white-collar professions, especially managers, were regarded as beyond the pale as far as the trade unions were concerned. But experience has shown that this was not the case. These so-called barriers were surmounted at every stage.

Over the last twenty years there has been a mushrooming of white-collar trade unions, especially in the public sector. This is a tremendously positive development. The fears that trade unions could not meet the challenges of the twenty-first century are equally unfounded. Throughout the 1990s, trade unions were remarkably successful in the political fund ballots that took place, despite allegations that “political unionism” was unpopular. This outcome had little to do with the campaign of the leadership – which was very feeble – but was rather a reflection of the natural class instincts of the workers themselves.

Today, with the attacks in the workplaces, trade unions are becoming increasingly popular amongst workers. Millions of unorganised workers could be recruited if the unions were to wage a determined campaign to tackle the problems faced by the working class, in relation to jobs, wages, conditions, workers’ rights and other issues. If this were coupled with a concerted recruitment drive into these layers, millions could be won to the trade union movement. Even now, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey, many workers have never been asked to join a union. If they had been asked, a third said they would join – and this is without any campaign! There is “a high degree of frustrated demand for unionisation”, to use the jargon of the survey, and many never get the chance to join unions.[6] In practice, the conditions in the workplaces, with their casualised, contracted-out and insecure workforce, have never been riper for the growth of trade union organisation.

The recent growth of strikes is just the tip of the iceberg. After a long period of relative lull in the class struggle, there are now clear indications of an upturn in the movement. “Despite the strike statistics and the relative passivity of the working class at this stage, under the surface of this apparent calm exists an accumulation of bitterness and frustration. This is the ‘molecular process’ developing in he minds of the working class that Trotsky talked about. Sooner or later this resentment will break through to the surface…” I wrote these lines a decade ago in an attempt to explain what was taking place. The article continued:

“This ‘counter-revolution’ is preparing a massive recoil at a certain stage. It would be a serious error to conclude that the present relative lull in the class struggle and the quiescence in the mass organisations are of a permanent character…

“How and when the industrial movement will develop depends on a variety of factors. General industrial upsurges, as in 1919-21 or 1974, are more the exception than the rule. Again the movement does not take place in a straight line. ‘The political mood of the proletariat,’ stated Trotsky, ‘does not change automatically in one and the same direction. The upturns in the class struggle are followed by downturns, the flood tides by ebbs, depending upon complicated combinations of material and ideological conditions, nationally and internationally. An upsurge of the masses, if not utilised at the right moment or misused, reverses itself and ends in a period of decline from which the masses will recover faster or slower under the influence of new objective stimuli.’ Further on he explains that ‘the impetus for change’ is given by ‘the change in the economic conjuncture… demands are forced upon the workers on the one hand by the rise of the cost of living and on the other hand by intensified physical exploitation.’ This is the process that is unfolding at the present time.”[7]

When such a break in the situation would occur, it was impossible to say. Astronomy is able to make exact predictions concerning solar eclipses, but the struggle of living forces in society is far more complex and difficult to predict. The process was similar to the stretching of an elastic band. You could say with certainty that the elastic band would break at a certain point. But it was not possible to predict when that point would be reached. Over the last decade, the process unfolded in a far more protracted fashion than we thought likely. The prolongation of the boom and explosion of consumer and corporate credit served to extend the process beyond its limits. For a time the election of a Labour government also held things back. But now the working class has had enough.

Explosive situation

The reason for the growing feeling of frustration among workers is not hard to find. Even during the boom period there has been a continuing erosion of working conditions, safety and job security. On the other hand, there has been a remorseless pressure on the working class. Alongside this, has been the increasing gulf between rich and poor. In the last 30 years national income has doubled, and living standards have certainly gone up for the majority in work, yet the poorest sections of the working class have continued to fall behind. Members of Parliament earn more than 96 per cent of the rest of the population, while fat cat employers are paid obscene sums for presiding over the destruction of British industry.

At the same time, millions have been forced off unemployment benefit into dirt-poor jobs, on £4.50 an hour and even less. Many are at the mercy of ruthless sweatshop employers. Rules for Housing Benefit have also been tightened, making claims far more difficult. Although Family Tax Credit is available, many benefits go unclaimed as a result of the complex procedures, lack of information, or simply the loss of other benefits. The majority of state benefits are now means tested, where claimants are forced to run a gauntlet of bureaucratic procedures. Council tax bills have shot up by 15-20 per cent, and rents continue to rise, meaning a cut in real wages for many workers struggling to make ends meet.

This situation is laying the basis for a mighty explosion. The workers of Britain have shown tremendous loyalty to their traditional mass organisations built up over generations. It is in times of crisis that workers turn repeatedly to these organisations. They do so, not to prop up the system that oppresses them, but in order to change society. This conclusion is the result of the experience of generations of struggle. It is the real reason why the unions created the Labour Party in the first place, and why they must fight to return the Labour Party to its roots.

Just before the Second World War Trotsky outlined a stark choice before the Labour movement:

“Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation of workers.”

Today, that still remains the stark choice before the trade unions.

As can be seen on the continent, the general crisis of capitalism is compelling the working class to struggle. In Britain, the battle to transform and retransform the Labour and trade union organisations has begun. Inevitably, this process has started firstly in the unions, but it will not end there. The battle will be carried over into the Labour Party. Quantity is changing into quality. This process of change will be accelerated by the impact of great events that will shake the unions and the Labour Party from top to bottom. In the near future, the grip of the right wing will be completely shattered, opening up the perspective of a new stormy period ahead. The class struggle will be on a much higher level than before. A new drama is about to unfold in Britain and internationally that will put into the shade the events of the past.


[1] The Financial Times, 13 March 2003

[2] Ibid, 13 March 2003, my emphasis

[3] Ibid, 14 March 2003

[4] Trotsky, Through What Stage Are We Passing? p.14, London 1965

[5] The Times, 1 February 1983

[6] The Guardian, 27 December 2002

[7] Socialist Appeal, September 1992