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Friday, 6 September, 2002, 07:00 GMT 08:00 UK
Power test for superunions
Big unions? That meant big trouble.
At least, so it appeared in 1993 when, within days of the formation of "superunion" Unison, claiming more than 1.5 million members, its leader Alan Jinkinson was warning of a "winter of hostility".
"We are prepared to lock horns with the government," Mr Jinkinson said, fighting a threat to freeze public sector pay, and setting Unison on a collision with employers' group the CBI.
Nine years later, Mr Jinkinson, retired from Unison, has added a government advisership to his CV, and levels of industrial unrest, if turning up, are among their lowest levels for a century.
And while the process of union merger has continued, with Amicus the most recent giant created, even the CBI feels relaxed about the coming of unions which - with Unison boasting revenues of £118m last year - have the financial clout of a large public company.
"It is not so much the size of a union which is important but its willingness to co-operate," said CBI spokeswoman Katja Klasson.
Size not everything
Despite the superunions, levels of public sector pay remain low.
And, suffering poor holiday entitlement, long working hours, poor management, and shrinking pensions, workers in the privatel sector have plenty to shout about, the TUC believes.
So superunions - super-disappointment?
"The idea that bigger size means more industrial muscle is not necessarily true," Mr Stanley says.
Take Aslef, the train drivers' union, which claims but 17,000 members, yet is known by millions.
"Aslef is a small union, but has industrial muscle galore," he added.
While superunions may boast a membership which, in Unison's case, exceeds 1.3 million, that does not present a charter for industrial blackmail.
"Unions can't just pull people out on strike like that," Mr Stanley said.
"Law prevents, for instance, sympathy strikes."
To understand Britain's union giants requires a finer appreciation of labour representation.
"For a start they are not superunions, whatever people may call them," said Professor Peter Fairbrother, a trade union expert at Cardiff University.
"They are big unions, perhaps. But not what was meant by superunions when the term was first used in the 1980s."
The idea then was that superunions should be formed through consolidation along sector lines, as occurred in Mr Fairbrother's native Australia.
There a programme backed by both workers and ministers saw the number of unions cut from 143 to 48 between 1989 and 1995.
"In Britain, unions may have merged, but not restricted themselves by sector," Mr Fairbrother said.
Local or national?
Furthermore, they have formed in reaction to events, rather than as part of a pro-active government-backed drive, said Dr Jeremy Waddington, reader at Umist's Manchester School of Management.
"What unions found they had to cope with was, after 1979, a protracted period of membership decline," he said.
"Employment shifted away from manufacturing to private sector services, to firms with smaller workplaces higher rates of turnover - things unions found difficult to cope with."
Union membership fell from 12 million in 1979 to about 7 million today.
And this decline co-incided with a period of localisation which, ironically, favoured the formation of broad-based union "conglomerates".
"What was saw was the growth of local bargaining, instead of deals being struck at a national level," Mr Waddington said.
"This meant unions had to get involved in more negotiations, and expend more resources, yet their income was under pressure because of the membership decline."
Smaller unions found themselves unable to meet their administration bills.
"Larger unions were better placed to be able to take advantage of economies of scale. To provide, say, the extra training needed for negotiators."
Long standing process
A further catalyst was the relaxation in 1964 of laws which had made it "nigh on impossible" for unions to merge.
"In fact, the merger process in British trade unions is nothing new," Mr Waddington said.
"The formation of the GMB from the Boilermakers' Union and the National Union of General and Municipal workers in 1982 - that would be the creation of a superunion in modern parlance."
What is new, however, is the proportion of union members claimed by the large UK unions.
"The bigger organisations are organising more of the UK's total union membership than before," Mr Waddington said.
And that has implications not so much for employers, but the TUC, as the overarching body of the UK's union movement.
"What it does is concentrate power in fewer hands.
"So when Sir Ken Jackson failed to gain re-election at Amicus, and his successor is appears not to be so favourable towards Europe, that could lead to a shift in TUC policy towards Europe."
The power focus could even lead to the decline of the TUC altogether, if the UK follows Germany and sees three unions account for 85% of members.
"Imagine you are the German chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, and you want to set public sector pay. Would you talk to the German equivalent of the TUC, or go to the guy who runs the main public sector union?"
The answer: Cut out the middle man.
"The question too is being asked in Britain 'what is the role of a confederation', although any serious challenge seems a way down the track."
Indeed, where Unison does see its membership dynamics count is in talks the government, the kind of area which the TUC might traditionally expect to cover.
"We are the biggest Labour Party affiliate, so we have a lot of influence," said Unison spokeswoman Mary Maguire.
"We have a team of very experienced negotiators. While our members have staged industrial action, it is only as a last resort."
Not that it is just the size of Unison's membership that counts, but its make-up too - its female majority, by a ratio of two-to-one.
"Because we have a large proportion of women, we have a different way of doing things," Ms Maguire said.
"We do not have the tub thumping culture of some traditional unions."
So will Unison bosses distance themselves from the sabre rattling promised for next week's TUC conference?
Delegates might question the benefit of disunity at a time when the union movement is again a force to be reckoned with.
And, if Mr Waddington is to be believed, there is too much substance yet to the TUC for its vocalism to be likened to the din from an empty drum.
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