With elections looming on the horizon, the relationship between the Labour party and trade unions has gained in importance. When New Labour came to power in 1997, British trade unions were jubilant. Battered by several consecutive Conservative governments with the defeat of the Miners’ Strike in the mid-1980s having been the most visible sign of the government’s attack on trade unions, the British labour movement hoped for a revival of its influence on policy-making and a strengthening of its position within industrial relations. On balance, however, New Labour has not delivered from a trade union point of view.
Admittedly, some positive decisions were taken. Immediately upon entering office, the Labour government signed up to the Social Chapter of the European Union. As a result, the directives on atypical work and parental leave, for example, were also implemented in the UK. While these directives and their minimum standards had little concrete impact in the majority of EU member states, where workers enjoyed much higher welfare rights, in Britain they improved the working life and entitlement of larger numbers of workers. New Labour also introduced the minimum wage, which again had a dramatic impact on the wages of many low paid workers. Nevertheless, here the positive points stop. The statutory union recognition legislation, a key objective for trade unions in relation to their efforts at organising workplaces, was watered down and social partnership in the form of tripartism, i.e. institutionalised negotiations between trade unions, employers’ associations and the government, was not institutionalised beyond the Low Pay Commission. European social legislation was implemented in a minimalist way and Britain continued to function as an obstacle to a further development of the Social Dimension in the EU. Privatisation in the public sector was driven forward through so-called Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships. The public sector was restructured through the introduction of business principles and new public management methods. Trade unions were rarely consulted.
Most importantly, however, New Labour has not repealed the anti-trade union laws by the Thatcher governments of the 1980s. Trade unions still have to run a highly complex and rigorous ballot of their members before announcing a strike and, once they have succeeded in doing this, must give an advance notice of seven days of any strike action to their employer. A complete ban on solidarity and secondary action, which significantly undermines trade union’s structural power in the labour market, has remained in place. Some commentators even argue that “New Labour’s amendments made the whole rigorous balloting requirements and disclosure of information a protection for employers” (Martin Mayer, Morning Star, 7 January 2010). Recent Court injunctions against a strike in the railway industry just after Easter 2010 and against a strike by British Airways (BA) cabin crew over Christmas 2009, although 92 per cent of the workforce had voted in favour on a turnout of 80 per cent, confirm this point. Nevertheless, instead of protecting the right to strike, key figures in the Labour government went on air criticising the decision to take strike action by Unite, the trade union organising BA cabin crew. Prime Minister Gordon Brown called the strike “unjustified and deplorable” (BBC News, 15 March 2010) and the Transport Secretary Lord Adonis referred to the planned strike as “totally unjustified” (BBC News, 14 March 2010). This direct government intervention into an industrial relations dispute has undermined trade unions and workers’ right to strike yet further.
And yet, several British trade unions, including Unite, which was so heavily criticised by the Labour government for organising the strike of BA cabin crew, continue to support New Labour in the run-up to the current general elections (see, for example, Unite 4 labour; the endorsement by the General Secretary of the GMB union; and a poster campaign by Unison). New labour also relies to a large extent on financial donations by several of the big British trade unions. A report published in the Telegraph in May 2008 stated that trade union donations made up over 90 per cent of the party’s funding at that time (Telegraph, 23 May 2008). Is it not time for trade unions to adopt a more independent position and use this money for more effective purposes in their attempt to influence policy-making?
Of course, trade unions cannot expect anything better from a Conservative government or a government with participation by the Liberal Democrats. Nevertheless, a more independent position from the Labour party would not automatically imply a position of opposition to the Labour party. Norwegian trade unions have shown how a more independent position can result in more influence on policy-making as well as a revival of the close relationship with the Social Democratic Party. In 2000 and 2001 the then Social Democratic led government implemented several measures of neo-liberal restructuring against the wishes of trade unions. When the party then experienced one of its worst defeats in the 2001 elections, trade unions did not simply turn round and renewed their pledge to the party. On the contrary, prior to the 2005 elections they put forward their own political agenda, submitted related questions to all political parties and then endorsed those parties to the electorate, which had responded favourably. It was this focus on policies, rather than unquestioning support of the Social Democratic Party, which made clear to the latter that it first needed trade union support, if it wanted to return to power and second, that it could not take this support for granted, but needed to earn it with pro-labour policies. Since the return to power by the Norwegian Social Democratic Party at the head of a three party coalition in 2005, old ties with the trade unions have been strengthened, the Prime Minister meets the President of LO, the main trade union confederation, on a fortnightly basis to discuss policies and any neo-liberal restructuring measures such as privatisation of the public sector are off the table. Would not a similar, more independent strategy be also more fruitful for British trade unions?
Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website: http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/~ldzab