Issue 178 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review


Gathering pace

  • Tory MPs, the media and even some on the left keep telling us that the trade unions are in terminal decline and class struggle is a thing of the past. But the unions and the working class are far from dead and buried.

  • The figures do show a decline in union membership. The 1992 Labour Force Survey, for example, showed that total union membership was 9 million--lower than at any time since 1946. This represented a fall of more than 30 percent--4.2 million--from its peak year in 1979.

  • But the figures need close examination. For example, since 1920 there has been a steady fall in the number of unions--but the number of union members has actually increased.

  • Mergers and transfers--like the massive Unison union created from Nalgo, Nupe and Cohse--account for much of the change. These unions have enormous industrial muscle. Just nine unions account for 60 percent of the total union membership, and the 20 largest unions, all with over 100,000 members, have 79 percent of all union members.

  • Neither has union density--the proportion of workers in unions and staff associations--fallen as dramatically as many surveys have indicated.

  • For example, the magazine Labour Research had to amend its figures from the Quantine company (contracted by the Department of Employment) which had implied that union density had dropped from 35 percent in 1992 to 33 percent in 1993. In fact union density remained steady at 35 percent in 1993. Density for women workers, said to have declined from 32 percent in 1992 to 30 percent in 1993 by Quantine, had only declined by a fraction of a percent.

  • Tory MP Michael Forsyth gave even more positive figures in answer to a parliamentary question, suggesting that the proportion of workers in a union stood at 42 percent in 1992. Union density in workplaces with more than 50 employees stands at 47 percent--far higher than smaller workplaces. Some industries have seen an increase in the numbers of workers joining the union--metal extraction and manufacture, leather and footwear, local government and a category which includes fire, justice and social security.

  • The decline overall in trade union membership between 1989 and 1992--estimated to be more than 1 million--is almost entirely among manual workers. The decline can largely be accounted for because two very severe recessions have had a devastating impact on manufacturing industry.

  • The lowest union density is in sales occupations--only one in eight are members of a trade union. But in other industries devastated by recession workers have joined unions. In textiles, for example, union density increased last year from 34 percent to 37 percent. And the banking and finance sector, where job losses had already reached 20,000 in 1993, saw its union density rise.

  • The idea that women don't join the unions in large numbers is a myth. The proportion of women trade unionists increased last year to 40 percent of all trade union members--up from 37 percent in 1989. Women outnumbered men in five of the ten largest unions.

  • New research by Labour Research finds that of the 37 private sector companies which each employ over 30,000 workers all but three have union recognition agreements with the TUC. These include companies like supermarket chains Sainsbury and Tesco, engineering firms like GEC and British Aerospace. Two of the three companies without union recognition are in the retail industry--Marks and Spencer and the John Lewis Partnership. The third is the catering giant Forte--in an industry notorious for its low levels of organisation.

  • A recent survey of new union members found that financial service packages--such as discounts on buying a car, insurance, travel and holidays--offered by the major unions have little impact on recruitment of white collar staff.

    Reasons for joining a union White collar staff %  Other occupations % 
    To support me if I had a problem at work 71.9 68.3
    To improve my pay and conditions 49.0 44.6
    I believe in trade unionism and wish to take part 24.1 17.9
    Benefits and services (inc financial services package) 9.7 12.1
    Most people at work are members 8.8 23.2
    Training and education services 0.3 1.4
    Other 8.4 5.8

  • The survey showed that union 'benefits and services' appealed more to blue collar workers than to white collar, but still made up only 12.1 percent of the reasons cited for joining the union by blue collar workers and 9.7 percent for white collar workers.

  • Far more workers joined the union to protect their rights at work. A full 71.9 percent of white collar workers and 68.3 percent of other workers stated 'to support me if I had a problem at work' as their major reason. Nearly half of white collar and 44.6 percent of blue collar workers joined 'to improve pay and conditions' and 24.1 percent of white collar and 17.9 percent of blue collar joined because 'I believe in trade unionism and wish to take part.'

  • Even official figures show that struggle is beginning to gather pace. So the 1993 total of 649,000 days 'lost' in 211 stoppages, involving 385,000 workers, surpasses the 1992 total of 528,000 days lost, involving 148,000 workers.

  • Over half of strike days last year were in the private sector--despite the myth that private sector workers are too beaten down to fight.

  • Transport and communication workers were involved in one quarter of all disputes.

  • There were 18 prominent stoppages in 1993--involving the loss of 5,000 or more working days--accounting for 83 percent of all stoppages. The majority of disputes--over 36 percent--were over pay. Second in line was the fight against redundancies.

  • This year many workers have sprung into action, often in defiance of the Tory anti-union laws. These disputes and the strike by signal workers will mean that 1994 strike figures will shoot up. More importantly, it means that all the signs are that the class struggle is hotting up.

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