A thought-provoking post yesterday from Michael Carty, on the decline of trade unions. Some commentators, he says, are preparing to read the last rites for the US trade union movement. Christopher Caldwell asked last week:
If trade unions did not exist now, would we feel a need to invent them? Styles of labour organisation change and end. Guilds, indenture, phalansteries, kibbutzes, apprenticeships – all of them, in their day, had success in either enriching proprietors or ennobling workers. None is particularly fit for contemporary purpose, even if they survive here and there.
The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson notes the decline of America’s unions and their failure to adapt to the demise of country’s large-scale manufacturing plants. Public sector unions, he argues, could go the same way:
Private-sector unions……never reconciled past successes with future survival. So Big Labor became Little Labor. If public-sector unions fail, Little Labor could become Mini Labor.
Could something similar happen in the UK?
The figures for all the OECD countries show a decline in union membership since the 1980s. Union membership levels vary considerably but the trend is the same, even in the highly unionised Scandinavian countries. Two of the trade unions’ biggest recruiting grounds were the large manufacturing plants and the public sector bureaucracies. The OECD countries have a lot fewer manufacturing plants than they did in the 1980s. They will soon have much smaller public sector bureaucracies too.
The level of trade union membership in the UK will almost certainly decline in the next few years. The half a million or so public sector workers due to lose their jobs will almost all be union members. Most of the private sector jobs created over the next few years will be in less unionised sectors. The social enterprises, charities and private firms which take over public sector work will have lower levels of union membership too. The trade unions are about to lose 7-8 percent of their membership. Much of this loss will be permanent.
The loss of public sector union members is likely to be seen throughout the developed world, though the scale will vary depending on the speed and size of government spending cuts. To an extent, though, the decline in unions is inevitable.
Unions were a response to big and powerful organisations. As workers were pulled into ever-larger manufacturing operations and subjected to factory discipline, organising into equally disciplined and regimented bodies was a natural response. Trade unions were a mirror image of the large corporations and public sector bureaucracies in which their members worked.
Union leaders, therefore, were most comfortable when dealing with other large and well-defined organisations. They have always struggled to organise in the smaller and more fragmented sectors. Public service provision is about to see a very rapid shift from large and standardised to small and fragmented. The unions will find it hard to adapt.
Is this good news for employers and governments? Some will certainly think that weakening the power of pesky unions can only be a good thing. However, many of those who have worked with unions know that they can serve as a conduit for unrest, formalising and channeling grievances which would otherwise blow up in random and less controllable ways. As I have said before, if you work with them, they can make your job as a manager easier. The assertion by some on the anarchist left that unions are bosses’ partners in control is not entirely without foundation!
The same may well be true at national level. The weakening of trade unions does not necessarily imply that opposition to governments will weaken too. In some countries, notably France, trade unions manage to cause major disruption with only a tiny proportion of the workforce as members. In the UK, the recent protests against corporate tax avoidance, and the movement that grew up around it, were not initiated by the traditional left. The demonstrators managed to organise high-profile action around the country without any help from the trade unions.
So the gradual weakening of trade unions does not necessarily mean that employers and governments will get an easy ride. Unions serve to channel discontent in an orderly fashion. Without them, the discontent is still there but it’s much more difficult to spot and you never know in what form it will manifest itself. Non-union opposition could present problems for governments and employers alike. After all ‘shapeless movements of the labouring poor, small craftsmen, artisans and the like’ made bloodier revolutions than the disciplined trade unionists ever did.