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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 180 Contents

Albie Lithgow


No saviours from on high


From Socialist Review, No. 180, November 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Future of the Trade Unions
Robert Taylor
Andre Deutsch £9.99

Robert Taylor is labour correspondent of the Financial Times and was commissioned by the TUC to write this book. Rather than the total pessimism of the 1980s we get a reassessment which attempts to look at the figures for trade union decline and put them in perspective. Taylor argues that there has been no massive ideological movement away from trade unionism. Up to three quarters of the decline in trade union density since 1979 can be blamed on the contraction of the manufacturing sector, where trade unions were traditionally strong.

Taylor does come out with some absurdities, for example that 47 percent of trade unionists are middle class. However, his central argument is a welcome change from some of the theories which stress the irreversible decline of the trade unions.

But how do we win a new layer of members to the trade unions to replace those lost through the decline of manufacturing? Taylor’s answer is to update some of the old ‘new realist’ politics to fit the 1990s. He argues that the main job of trade unions is the creation of a social partnership with employers, and the introduction of positive legal rights of representation for all workers.

This social partnership involves a consensual approach, where in return for job security the enlightened union manages change for the company ensuring job flexibility. In return for bosses being fair to workers, involving them in consultation through the various techniques of human resource management, the unions can help workers recognise the importance of profitability.

In today’s economic climate this strategy amounts to utopian nonsense. An engineering convenor quoted says ‘these days I’m seen to be – and I sometimes feel – that I am just a go-between the management and shopfloor, perhaps even a management mouthpiece.’ The convenor then explains young people don’t seem to be too interested in the union. It’s hardly surprising: who wants to become an activist if your main job is to explain the need for more profitability?

The introduction of positive workers’ rights has to be seen in the context of abolition of all anti trade union laws and legal immunity restored to the trade unions. Rather than using the might of the trade union movement to break unfair union laws, Taylor’s approach would accept a lot of the anti union restraints in the name of recognising the unions’ responsibilities, hoping that in return worker representation would be recognised as a right. Without strong union organisation on the ground, rights such as health and safety, even when enshrined in statute, are often totally ignored. The key task is to give confidence to, and therefore strengthen union organisation below, not look for saviours from Westminster or Brussels.

The greatest criticism of this book is that it practically ignores class struggle. This is important because capitalism is a dynamic system, the structure of our class is always changing. Groups of workers who form the backbone of the unions were unionised in struggle. In the 1950s intellectuals had elaborate theories that explained why workers in light engineering, like car workers, would never fight. Today similar ideas are held about bank or hypermarket workers. Whether these workers recognise their potential power, will in the end depend on the course of the class struggle.

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