Issue 220 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: New recruits in the union army

Peter Morgan

'I was astonished that so many people said yes straight away. People flocked to the union. There is no doubt there is a new mood over trade unions today.' So said one of the workers at Fullerton's computer factory in the west of Scotland following a recruitment drive recently by the ISTC (the steelworkers' union which is branching out into other areas). Of the 900 full time workers between 550-600 have now joined the union as ISTC officials leafleted the gates and activists inside signed people up to the union. It is all part of an aggressive recruitment campaign by the ISTC in its fight for recognition in Fullerton's.

With the publication of Labour's white paper on employment rights, many trade unions have gone on the offensive over recognition. Paul Chamberlain, a National Committee Delegate in construction in the TGWU, told Socialist Review, 'The unions are putting serious money and resources into recruiting. As far as the TGWU is concerned it will be in the region of millions.'

After 18 years of the most viciously anti trade union government this century many trade unionists now believe they have a great opportunity to turn things their way and rebuild the unions. Part of the reason for this is the clear and unambiguous pledge Labour made in its election manifesto:

'People should be free to join or not join a union. Where they do decide to join, and where a majority of the relevant workforce vote in a ballot for the union to represent them, the union should be recognised.'

For many people this was a green light to go out and fight for union recognition. Yet in implementing this pledge Blair has clearly taken the side of the CBI by setting a 40 percent threshold. This creates a situation where 79 percent of workers could vote for a union on a 50 percent turnout, yet by law the union would not be recognised. Yet the white paper does make an important concession to the trade unions. Recognition will be granted if a union proves over 50 percent of workers are union members. Already the TUC has a hit list of target companies where this could automatically guarantee recognition. These include Noon's in Southall (350 workers, 90 percent in a union); Halifax Estate Agencies (6,000 workers, 50 percent in a union); Eurotunnel (140 workers, 99 percent in a union). But there are many others on the hit list including Harrods, the Body Shop, Honda, the big oil companies and News International.

Taken as a whole this white paper gives opportunities to the trade unions. But it is important to recognise that it still leaves most of the anti-union legislation from the Thatcher years intact this includes ballots and notices before strikes, the abolition of the closed shop, secondary action and mass picketing.

However, for those at Fullerton's who have been at the forefront of building the union there is a real possibility that they will now be recognised. 'When the white paper comes out if we simply have to get a majority then we already have that, but if Blair makes it tougher then I still believe we can do it we will just have to fight for it.'

Trade union leaders put great faith in the new Blair government acting to tip the balance their way. Throughout the 1980s the Tories combined an attack against the working class in the workplace with a whole series of laws passed through parliament. It amounted to the most sustained legislative attack on trade unions ever.

But, paradoxically, not all the legislation had the effect intended. The 1984 Trade Union Act designed by the Tories was intended to break the link between the trade unions and Labour. The act forced the unions to hold regular ballots of their members to see if they wanted to carry on the political fund the money which went to the Labour Party to fight the election.

The result was an overwhelming endorsement in support of trade unions and their link with Labour. The ballots resulted in huge majorities (between 80 and 90 percent) in favour of keeping the political fund and affirmed the right of unions to campaign on political issues. What is more, rather than weakening the union machine as the Tories thought, it led to the strengthening of the unions.

The main reason for this was that the unions went on the offensive to win the argument and get a yes vote. A centralised strategy was combined with an enormous propaganda campaign. This concentrated on winning the argument at grassroots level many unions had named representatives at factories and offices who went out and fought for a yes vote. The final result was a massive defeat for the Tories and showed how successful the trade unions can be when they go on the offensive and openly campaign.

Although the new white paper on trade union reform has made concessions to the CBI, especially over the 40 percent threshold, the union leadership can learn a lesson from their campaign against the 1984 Act. It means that in every workplace socialists and activists can openly campaign for recognition and argue the case for workers to have collective organisation.

Already there are signs emerging that the tide is flowing in favour of the unions. The TUC recently surveyed 44 unions which represent some 6.4 million members, or 95 percent of the TUC membership. Its Trade Union Trends: Recognition report included details of new recognition deals, current campaigns to secure recognition, and the decreasing number of derecognition cases. It finds that where unions go on the offensive to recruit new members the results are good. Of the unions surveyed, 40 percent reported securing new recognition deals within the period July 1997 to February 1998. This compares with 24 percent in the six months prior to July 1997. What this adds up to is 70,831 new union members, and, as the report concludes, 'This is by far the highest number of workers covered by new recognition deals since the Trends surveys started.'

Similarly only 8 percent of unions said they suffered derecognition significantly lower than in previous surveys. The number affected by union derecognition comes to 1,535 workers. Thus, the TUC concludes, in terms of the number of employees affected, recognition deals outpaced derecognition by more than 45 to one. In response the TUC has set up a team of 36 young full time organisers each allocated to different unions whose sole aim is to build the union. Part of this is done in quite a bureaucratic, top down way writing to management, organising meetings and so on. But some of this is done by going out to factory gates arguing the case for a union at unorganised places and then using this to approach management. The TUC estimates that the gradual decline in union membership over the last few years is bottoming out. In particular there are great opportunities to recruit women. As its recent booklet Women and Work and Union Recognition says, 'With forecasts for the growth in women's employment, an estimated 200,000 more women could come into unions by 2001, taking numbers up to 3.3 million. An increase in recruitment, especially among part time women workers, could take that up to 3.5 million.'

For other sections of the trade union bureaucracy the penny is beginning to drop with the prospect of legislation making recognition legal combined with a greater willingness by workers to unionise means there are real possibilities to build. The ISTC is one union that has adopted an aggressive recruitment campaign, as one of its officials describes:

'There have been many successes at greenfield sites for our union over recruitment, as well as at places that have never had a union in before. In the past someone from the union went along once or twice and it petered out. So what we have done is to target places and keep going back. It's a new policy to put people solely on recruitment, and it needs some time not just a few leaflets or advertising. It needs real contact with people.

'Because of this we have got new union branches at places such as Eminox in Gainsborough and Polypipe, a national firm that deals in plastics. We have had to do the so called old fashioned stuff going on the factory gates, handing out leaflets, going back the next day, meeting people in the pub, arranging a meeting to try and establish a union, giving people confidence that they can belong to a union and change things themselves rather than simply leaving it to officials to change things. The strength of the union is the people themselves. This is something that has been lost over the years, so we have to get back to that.

'In the 1980s unions felt they could modernise and become a discounting company but this did not work. Today the stuff about holiday discounts or cheap insurance is very peripheral to getting people to join. Today we are getting back to what unions are about if it's a bad boss there's no point in saying you can work in partnership. How can you work in partnership with the devil? So we've said what we must do is to go and organise and get better conditions and once the workers get a bit of power then management will listen, and not until then.

'We are concentrating on areas such as the Midlands, Scotland, and new greenfield sites such as computers. We are even going for food places, any outlet like that, and we are especially keen on recruiting young workers because we find there are a lot of low paid young workers that no union has bothered with. And it's no surprise that youngsters think they haven't bothered with us so why should we bother with them it will be a bit of a process turning that round.

'So the white paper on union rights will definitely allow people to go out and organise even if they do set it at 40 percent. In a strange kind of way it will give us a bigger mandate if we win it.'

The ISTC is not alone in going on the offensive over recruitment. In response to the TUC survey, officials of the shop workers' union USDAW say that seeking recognition is now considered part of its daily activity, and the GMB pointed out that at any one time they will have 30 recruitment campaigns on the go.

One of these is at Denso Marsden in Shipley near Bradford. It is involved in the manufacture of car radiators and, unlike in their Leeds plant where it recognises the union, the one in Shipley refuses to do so. This followed a particularly bitter six week dispute in the 1980s which saw shop stewards victimised and the engineers' AEU union derecognised. Since then conditions have got particularly hard, as Bill, a young worker, explains: 'People are pissed off about the poor health and safety, no tea breaks and no decent pay rise. Even if you want to go to the toilet or for a drink of water you are challenged by the line manager, or team leader as they call them. Some of the blokes I work with talk about being in a union and are hopeful about what Labour will do.'

The GMB, being recognised at the Leeds plant, saw an opportunity to build the union in Shipley. The local officials leafleted the factory and they called a meeting in the town hall. Bill goes on, 'I went along to the meeting and the branch secretary from the Leeds plant was there. Although there was only a handful of blokes from our place there we found out that there were something like 70 individual GMB members in the Shipley plant. When I quizzed the GMB regional official about what they were going to do, he said that whatever the legislation is we're not going away.' The new white paper which allows the union to specify the bargaining plant would make recognition at a factory like this easier.

The TGWU has also been recruiting from the outside. Ericsson's mobile phone factory near Worksop, where about 1,000 people work, was leafleted over two days after which the union called a series of meetings in a local village hall. One of those who went along told Socialist Review, 'A lot of people were pleased to see a union doing something. Recently management has pushed through continental shift working and no one has been consulted, so people were saying it's about time a union was there. People are now saying at work how Labour are as bad as the Tories were.'

But it is not just in the large workplaces where there are opportunities to build the union. In small workplaces management can be just as nasty, and anger about what Labour is doing is just as deep. So Blair's decision to exempt workplaces that employ less than 20 people from recognition deals will create real discontent. However, it is possible to organise small workplaces. A support worker who works at a special school in Manchester which employs 35 people told Socialist Review:

'There are terrible conditions where I work we have to transport kids to and from home and we don't have proper cover, everyone's on different rates of pay, and there's no union recognition. People I work with feel detached from the trade union movement as there's not a tradition, so I had to start at the very beginning. Basically I joined Unison as an individual member, then I went to the pub after work with some others and got four of them to join. I had to explain the basics of what the union is about. So now there are five out of 35 in the union but we're going to try and get the other 30 to join and fight for recognition. People I speak to are pissed off about Blair saying you need 40 percent to join before you are recognised, but we have to build the union. Since I joined I have felt confident to speak out over pay.'

The mood is clearly changing. For years the bullying bosses have had it all their own way. Now it is easier to raise socialist politics at work, to go round work and argue with your workmates, and to organise meetings. Nowhere is this transformation more dramatic than in the publishing industry. The NUJ faced a whole series of attacks which culminated at the end of 1991 in its derecognition at a whole host of workplaces. Today, however, the NUJ is fighting back.

Alan works at Reed Business Information, part of the Reed publishing company. He leafleted a number of workplaces in his area and was able to pull a meeting of 25 people addressed by NUJ general secretary John Foster. Half of those who came were not in the union and so they were able to use this to rebuild membership. 'But what was great,' explains Alan, 'was that we decided to go for another meeting and others agreed to help build it. It was clear at the NUJ conference that there are a number of places where NUJ members are beginning to rebuild.'

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence today which shows that workers' attitudes are changing. This will intensify when the new law is passed. Already there have been a number of open public meetings called around the theme of 'Campaigning for Trade Union Rights'.

The opportunities for socialists and activists are enormous. If we want to organise it means going back to the basic arguments about why we need a union, how to build at work and why collective action is necessary. Over the issue of union rights Blair clearly takes the side of the bosses, and has only offered concessions to the unions under pressure. With a decision due soon on the minimum wage there can be few people who now believe he will offer anything but the lowest level well below the 4.61 demanded by the trade unions. As each day passes the anger against Blair gets deeper. Never has there been a better time to argue that we need collective strength and collective organisation for the battles that lie ahead.


What the white paper says...

There is a two track approach to union recognition.

A union will be recognised if 40 percent of the total workforce vote in favour and not just a simple majority.

But if a union can demonstrate that it has 50 percent plus one in the proposed bargaining unit it will be able to secure automatic recognition without having to go to a ballot.

However, the white paper exempts small companies that employ less than 20 people some 5 million workers.

It will be the trade unions and not the bosses who determine what constitutes a bargaining unit, although if the bosses are unhappy they can appeal.

Also all workers who are union members will have a legal right to representation when in dispute with their boss, even in companies where the union is not recognised.

Other proposals include protection for workers if they are sacked for involvement in lawful strikes they will now have the right to claim unfair dismissal.

There is a reduction in the required qualifying period from two years to one year for workers unfairly sacked, and the 11,500 limit on unfair dismissal awards is to be abolished.

Maternity leave will also be extended from 14 to 18 weeks. And finally the white paper will make it illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee on grounds of trade union membership, and the blacklisting of trade unionists will be prohibited.


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