How can unions rebuild power?

Ian Allinson reviews Jane Holgate’s new book, Arise! Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence, an exploration of why unions have failed to revitalise themselves. It argues for a fundamental rethink of union organising, structure and strategy in order to build power and change lives.

Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence by Jane Holgate is available from Pluto Press from 20 August 2021.
Arise: Power, Strategy and Union Resurgence by Jane Holgate is available from Pluto Press from 20 August 2021.

Though it has broadly stabilised in recent years, union membership fell rapidly from its peak in 1979, along with the power workers held. Arise, by academic and activist Jane Holgate, includes a valuable critique of the responses to this from the TUC and various unions. Centrally, Holgate’s argument is that even when unions talk about organising and power, their practical focus has prioritised recruitment over building real power for workers. British unions have failed to equip workers with an understanding of their potential power and how that has changed since the mid-1970s. As a result, most unions’ organising efforts have failed even in terms of membership growth, let alone turning the tide in workers’ favour.

Union responses to the Thatcherite offensive

Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979 and launched a dramatic offensive to break workers’ union power. When the Tories were re-elected in 1983, the TUC adopted a policy of ‘new realism’, which meant accommodating to a loss of power by being conciliatory to employers and government rather than resisting them. Holgate explains:

The rationale was that if unions adopted a more moderate approach, then the Conservatives’ legislative programme could perhaps be lessened through dialogue and partnership working with employers.

It was only a year after the promotion of new realism that the labour movement realised that conciliation wasn’t the approach the Conservatives wished to take. This was forcefully demonstrated when the government provocatively banned trade unions at the Government’s Communications Headquarters, the central communication intelligence and security organisation, and then provoked the miners’ strike in 1984.

Holgate summarises five main strategies adopted by unions from the mid-1980s onwards in the hope of countering their decline, then shows how each failed:

  • to increase recruitment where unions were already recognised by the employer for collective bargaining; 
  • to build membership in new non-organised workplaces; 
  • to expand a range of legal and financial services that weren’t traditionally associated with trade unionism; 
  • to consolidate by merging with other unions; 
  • more controversially, to make unions more appealing to employers through ‘partnerships’ by making concessions such as single union recognition, and no-strike agreements. 

Most employers saw little reason to enter partnerships with weak unions, and where there were partnership agreements, they rarely delivered much membership growth (retail union USDAW being the exception) and were even less successful in delivering any benefits to workers beyond individual representation. Partnership can’t build the power to compel employers to change course.

Mergers were mainly driven by business reasons – with the hope of economies of scale and greater efficiency. Some unions believed that size would deliver bargaining power, but this was rarely the case. Even in the political sphere, unions’ influence with the Labour Party declined. Others hoped to consolidate membership within particular sectors. Overall, mergers didn’t stop membership decline or contribute to a growth in power. Instead, an internal focus and factionalism for several years often distracted from tackling members’ issues or building power.

Infill recruitment in workplaces which already recognised a union grew in importance after the outlawing of the closed shop (compulsory union membership in a workplace) through successive anti-union legislation in 1980, 1982, 1988, and 1990. Unions tended to focus on easy targets to shore up their finances, often ignoring temporary and part-time workers, which contributed to a growth of the pool of workers who had never been in a union. At best, infill recruitment could slow union decline, it couldn’t reverse it.

Worse still, unions adopted a ‘service’ model of trade unionism in an attempt to retain the members they had. This included legal and financial services which are often mocked as ‘credit card trade unionism’. On the one hand, such services did little to attract members – mutual support at work is the main reason for joining a union – while on the other hand reinforcing an understanding of members as passive consumers of individual services from a third party, rather than actively participating with their own collective strength to resolve issues.

In 1998 the TUC set up an Organising Academy, aiming to train organisers to build membership in non-unionised workplaces, ready to take advantage of the new statutory procedure for gaining union recognition which formed part of the Employment Relations Act 1999. Unions won 2461 recognition claims covering 728,000 workers in the six years after the Act was introduced, overwhelmingly without having to go through the full legal process. But after picking off the low hanging fruit, progress slowed to a crawl.

It’s all about power

Holgate argues that the central reason for the lack of a union revival was a failure to consider power. Those leading unions were concerned with increasing membership to shore up their financial positions rather than as part of building power for workers to win more. They failed to consider how capitalism and the labour market had changed and the implications of new power relations for their strategies and tactics.

Holgate devotes considerable attention to exploring the different types of potential power which workers could draw on if we were organised to do so. Her model of power expands significantly on that of Beverly Silver. While some of her categories overlap a bit, breaking them down in such detail is helpful for prompting workers to reflect on their potential power resources and how we would need to organise to take advantage of them.

A particularly useful addition is ‘ideological power’. This constitutes the dominant ideas in society which express, normalise, and reinforce a particular set of power relations, manufacturing consent to a system of rule. Holgate talks about how workers resist ideological power by developing their own frames of reference, and the role of leaders in this process. It would have been a useful addition to consider the impact of workers’ own ideological resources, which vary considerably and are influenced by the involvement of socialists in organisation and struggles.

Holgate makes a strong case for more political education to equip workers to examine the power relations relevant to their own situation and develop strategies to take better advantage of available power resources to win more.

What is needed, however, is a form of political education, open to members as well as union reps, that helps to build the strategic capability and capacity of grassroots activism to create power resources and effect change. To quote a well-known phrase from Sun Tzu’s Art of War (1910), strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, but tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.

If unions are to be able to effectiveLY challenge the growing disparity of power that drives inequality and exploitation of workers, they need to show that through organising collectively, workers can win. But without political education that develops critical thinking and an ability to assess the successes (and failures) of the past and the present, workers are left without a vision of a credible path to winning, and consequently they are left without hope, and are thus most likely to remain passive or detached from the labour movement.

How were unions cowed?

The question of what had changed between the big victories of the early 1970s and the terrible defeats of the 1980s is an important one if we are to avoid failed attempts to re-enact past battles on radically different terrain. It’s an issue rs21 has considered before (e.g. here and here). Holgate’s argument hinges on four elements: a vision of the working class before World War Two, changes in class composition that followed, the Thatcherite offensive, and poor responses from unions.

Holgate paints a picture of the pre-war working class as having a high degree of occupational and cultural homogeneity, leading to workers understanding ‘the nature of power and how they could, when combined in unions, re-balance that power in favour of their class and their own material interests’. I found this unconvincing. Firstly, she acknowledges, quoting Hobsbawm, that the working class was deeply stratified. We could think of many examples including the skilled engineers fighting to prevent their ‘dilution’ by unskilled workers, the attempts to keep women out of many jobs, or the racist union agitation for the passage of the Aliens Act 1904. She assumes that regional similarities such as regional accents or support for town football teams are signs of working-class identity, when the team might well be owned by a local boss – these are cross-class identities, not class ones. Secondly, while union membership grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the vast majority of workers presumably did not understand the nature and potential for unions, as membership remained lower than it is today until the 1930s, apart from a brief peak around the end of World War One.

Drawing on Hobsbawm, Holgate sees changes in class composition in the post-war period as breaking down a collective sense of ‘us’ and laying the material basis for the halt in the forward march of labour. She argues that a gap widened between sections of the class who could use their structural power (arising from position in the production process or wider economy) to extract concessions and those who had less power, with the two groups ‘ideologically pitted against each other at the expense of class solidarity’. At the same time there was a growth in service sector, white collar, and professional occupations that changed who was, or was seen to be, part of the working class. 

Holgate argues that these new workers, while being objectively proletarian, culturally identified with a growing middle class. While the growth of these parts of the class is indisputable, they unionised rapidly in the 1970s, and a comfortable majority continue to self-identify as working class despite the confusion and stigma the media heap on the question. Class composition certainly changed dramatically in the second half of the twentieth century, particularly in the 1980s as a result of mass redundancies in several well-unionised, manual, mainly male occupations such as mining and manufacturing. But was this a major cause of the shift in the balance of power as Holgate suggests, or alternatively trends which accelerated as a consequence of defeat? Either way, these defeats certainly made it harder for unions to respond to the changes in class composition by expanding unionisation into new areas. Struggle, after all, plays a key role in the process of the working class as an objective category (‘in itself’) transforming itself into a self-conscious force (‘for itself’).

The book includes an interesting discussion of the 1976-8 strike at the Grunwick photo-processing plant in North London, which was led by Asian women. Holgate argues that the strike was a crucial experiment for the extra-parliamentary Thatcherite right, and the birth of what became known as neoliberalism, despite not being planned as such. Mass police violence and arrests, and a well-funded right-wing pressure group (National Association for Freedom) which took court action and moved strike-bound mail, were used to defeat the strike despite mass pickets and solidarity. Holgate explains the defeat as a result of the inadequacy of ‘previously successful union tactics faced with an altogether more strategic opposition, who changed the ‘rules’ of industrial relations and drew upon hitherto unused and unexpected power resources’.

While the forces the workers faced were indeed formidable, this side-lines some of the problems on the workers’ side. As Holgate explains:

‘The strikers’ union, APEX, came under pressure from the Labour government to pull back on the mass picketing, which it agreed to do. Once that occurred, what little power the workers had at this stage (it was clear the mass picketing was not effective) dissipated, along with the solidarity action from other unions and the TUC. While the women continued to fight without this support for the last few months, they eventually conceded defeat in July 1978 without having won any of their demands, including reinstatement.’

This seems part of a general pattern in the book, which highlights the benefits workers have gained from support from Labour politicians, but under plays the harms done by them to the movement. The achievements of the post-war Labour government are celebrated, but its use of troops to break strikes is ignored. The 1974-9 Labour governments and their allies in the union leaderships broke traditions of working-class solidarity built up over decades as Labour tried to stabilise the economy and satisfy the money markets with pay restraint and public spending cuts. Their role in making it respectable to cross a picket line, in breaking workers’ unity and preparing the ground for Thatcherism doesn’t carry much weight in Holgate’s analysis.

Both unions and the Labour Party, as the political representatives of the union bureaucracy, are contradictory, both resisting capital and accommodating to it, having both radical and conservative aspects. Colin Barker provides an alternative sketch of the tide turning in Revolutionary Rehearsals in the Neoliberal Age:

‘If for a time, during the 1960s and early 1970s, rank-and-file oppositional movements within and around trade unions posed the possibility of pulling the movements to the left, by the mid-1970s conservative and bureaucratic tendencies were again in the ascendant—notably in the UK, Italy, and the US—and rank-and-file movements proved incapable of organizing effectively to prevent major defeats in the 1980s.’

Holgate identifies ideological connections between the inadequate union response to Thatcherism and the Donovan Report from 1968. The Donovan Report was the output from the Royal Commission on Trade Unions and Employers’ Associations, set up by the Labour government in 1964 to ‘look into a solution to the problem of unofficial industrial action that was considered to be contributing to the UK’s on-going economic crisis’. The Commission, which included union representatives and academics alongside employer representatives, had a ‘consensus from the members that unofficial strikes and restrictive practices were in need of reform’ though ‘no one doubted the central role of unions and collective bargaining’. The general thrust of the report was to try to ‘professionalise’ both management and unions, which meant a centralisation and of power and bargaining away from workers and line managers, with more legal regulation of unions, including both restrictions on strikes and a statutory route to recognition. Rank and file opposition forced Labour to drop plans to implement it via the In Place of Strike White Paper, and the Tory attempt in the Industrial Relations Act 1971.

According to Holgate, the consensus around the Donovan approach, which has been described as ‘partnership through adversarial bargaining’, ideologically disarmed union leaders when Thatcher took office, determined to break workers’ power. They clung to the idea that unions were legitimate ‘partners’ and hoped that if they cooperated with reform, policed their members, and curbed disruptive rank and file militancy, their role would be assured. In reality, a move towards more centralised bargaining undermined workplace organisation and power, while the focus on ‘integrative bargaining’ (focusing on deals benefiting both parties) as part of a partnership approach meant neglect of ‘distributive bargaining’ (fighting for workers’ share of wealth and control over the job).

Arise outlines some of the key defeats of the 1980s and discusses the causes of them. These included rapid increases in unemployment, a shift away from manufacturing, new technology, deregulation, increased global competition, privatisation and outsourcing, denial of welfare benefits to strikers, and swathes of new anti-union legislation. Unlike Grunwick, the big disputes of the 1980s were ‘pre-planned clashes with a particular intention of undermining union power and deliberately weakening the union movement as a whole’. The Tories were implementing a carefully considered plan, shifting the balance of power and picking off unions one at a time. In 1978 a copy of the Ridley Plan, a report written by the MP Nicholas Ridley for the Conservative research department in 1977, was leaked to The Economist, yet unions planned no strategic response – even once the plan was being implemented. Despite this, and despite Labour’s failure to back strikers, workers’ resistance came within a whisker of defeating the Tories on several occasions, most notably when there was a risk of pit deputies, dockers, and Liverpool City Council putting up a fight during the 1984-5 miners’ strike. However, in each case the government succeeded in dividing the opposition.

Holgate perhaps over-states the importance of the anti-union legislation in Thatcher’s defeat of the unions. A deliberate policy of rapidly increasing unemployment, which doubled in Thatcher’s two years, played a huge role and was explicitly referred to in bargaining. One in six workers in the previously strike-prone manufacturing sector lost their jobs. TUC membership fell by over 500,000 in one year, mainly due to job losses. In the chart below, the red line shows the annual change in the unemployment rate against the right-hand axis. In 1979-84 and 1991-3 it is above the green 0% line, showing rising unemployment. The blue line shows the number of recorded strikes against the left axis, and the dashed vertical lines show the implementation dates of the Conservatives’ legislation. The dramatic fall in strikes in 1979-84 coincided with rising unemployment, as did the dip in 1991. Falls in strike numbers don’t correlate with the legislation, proving that it didn’t curb strikes as a simple, isolated, cause-and-effect. The new legislation didn’t always prevent workers taking action in the key battles of the 1980s such as the miners’ strike, partly because employers and government were often reluctant to use it for fear of provoking solidarity, and partly because unions and workers defied it.

Graph shows number of strikes, the rate of change in unemployment, and the dates of the employment Acts

The turn to organising

Perhaps the best part of the book is Holgate’s critique of union responses to Thatcherism. There are various case studies from different unions, illustrating the resistance to organising from within unions, the obstacles faced, and the shortcomings of union strategies. The two outliers, showing significant membership growth, are the shop workers’ union USDAW and the RMT rail union, who pursued radically different strategies.

USDAW pursued a partnership approach with four big retail companies – Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda and Morrisons. Facing high staff turnover in the sector, the union reportedly loses around a third of its membership each year, so it has to recruit just to stand still. It set up its own organising academy in parallel to the TUC one, aiming to make workplaces self-sufficient in recruitment and handling of individual casework with little intervention from paid union staff other than those reps who are paid by the union to temporarily ‘stand down’ from their jobs to recruit and represent members. Union full time officers deal with collective consultation and bargaining. USDAW saw significant gains in both absolute membership and membership density (the proportion of workers in the union). However, there was no attempt to build power that workers could use to challenge employer decisions or win higher wages. Indeed, there is no discernible wage premium for working in a unionised supermarket.

The RMT under Bob Crow took advantage of the relatively strong structural power of many of its members to establish ‘a reputation for militancy, for threatening, and undertaking, effective strike action’ and build both membership and power. Membership grew by 37% between 1999 and 2007. The RMT approach deviated from the typical TUC organising agenda in its emphasis on class-based confrontation with employers, reliance on member participation and a politicised activist layer, elected full-time officers, and not using specialist organisers. Growth in the RMT didn’t just protect union finances, but enabled members to win more using their increasing power.

Inspiration from New Unionism – when nineteenth century gig-workers organised

A major source of inspiration for Holgate is the New Unionism of the late nineteenth century, when important and successful strikes prompted rapid unionisation. The strikes involved ‘precarious’ workers with no employment rights, who were often casual workers or in what would today be called bogus self-employment, and who were regarded as ‘unskilled’ and easy to replace. This was a significant break from craft unions which exclusively organised workers in specific occupations – usually male and ‘skilled’. She quotes James Hinton:

Trade union membership grew from about half a million in the mid 1870s to over 4 million by 1914. By 1914 nearly a quarter of the occupied population belonged to trade unions, compared with a mere 4 percent in 1880…trades councils, previously confined mainly to the larger industrial towns, spread rapidly over the whole country, reflecting the growing identification amongst working-class activists with a national movement, broader and more political than mere sectional trade unionism

A recession undermined faith in economic progress and accelerated migration into towns and cities, adding to Irish migrants fleeing the Great Famine, Jews fleeing pogroms, and Indian seamen. New organisations formed ‘such as the Socialist Democratic Federation (founded 1881), the Fabians (1884), the Socialist League (1885) and the Independent Labour Party (1893)’. Key figures from these groups including Tom Mann, Will Thorne, and Ben Tillett were to play key roles in New Unionism.

Holgate recounts the struggles and achievements of three major strikes of New Unionism in East London: The Match Women’s strike of 1888, the strike by gas workers in 1889 and the dock workers’ strike the same year. To organise these workers, a different approach was needed from the old craft unions. Holgate quotes Keith Laybourn’s description of the campaign for an eight-hour day, which ‘offered a new conception of the role of trade unionism which went out to organize all workers in an aggressive manner rather that to simply defend, in a sectarian way, the wage levels of [some] workers’. A broad social justice framing helped unite workers and the unemployed. Holgate quotes Tom Mann, a socialist and leader of the dock strike:

To trade unionists I desire to make a special appeal. How long, how long will you be content with the present half-hearted policy of your unions? I readily grant that good work has been done in the past by the unions, but, in heaven’s name, what good purpose are they serving now? All of them have large numbers out of employment even when their particular trade is busy. None of the important societies have any policy other than that of endeavouring to keep wages from falling. The true unionist policy of aggression seems entirely lost sight of; in fact the unionist of today should be of all men the last to be hopelessly apathetic, or supporting a policy that plays directly into the hands of the capitalist exploiter.

In this context, Holgate’s emphasis in the book on political education makes perfect sense. She is one of the leading lights of the Ella Baker School of Organising, which generates ‘open source’ training courses and materials. But it is puzzling why, despite some sensitivity to the internal power relations within unions, the book seems to pitch its arguments to union leaderships, setting out how they would need to change to revitalise unions. The example of New Unionism, like the victories of the 1970s, point to change coming from below, with rank-and-file energy sometimes managing to transform the culture, policy, scope, power, and organisational forms of trade unionism.

Arise brings together a range of material including working class history and powerful critiques of union attempts at rejuvenation to produce a useful contribution to the vital debates about how the workers’ movement can escape its present torpor.



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