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Last Updated: Monday, 8 March, 2004, 08:45 GMT
The trade unions' long decline
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online economics reporter

pit head and miners
The miners were the most militant section of the trade union movement
The UK trade union movement seemed at the height of its powers in the l970s, bringing down governments and recruiting millions of new members. But did the miner's strike lead to its demise?

The Miner's Strike has been seen as the decisive political moment in the confrontation between the Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher and the power of militant trade unionism.

Mrs Thatcher's careful preparation before confronting the miners led to an overwhelming victory, vindicating her policy of mine closures and privatisation.

And it was coupled by a policy of radical reform of trade union legislation, banning tactics such as secondary picketing which had been used successfully by the miners in l972 and l974.

Being a union member has ceased to be the social norm
Professor Richard Hyman, London School of Economics
Her claim to have "tamed the unions" was an important part of her electoral success as well.

But in fact, the decline in trade union strength and militancy began well before the miners strike, and continued at the same rate, rather than accelerating, after the end of the strike.

Industrial decline

At the root of the long-term decline of Britain's unions was the changing structure of the British economy.

UK trade unions have traditionally been strongest in the old manufacturing industries like steel, coal, printing, the docks, and engineering (e.g. car manufacture).

T&G 1980: 2m
2000: 0.7m
*GMB 1980: 0.9m
2000: 0.7m
*UNISON 1980: 1.6m
2000: 1.3m
*significant mergers
source: TUC
But by the l970s these were all industries in decline, and the recession of the l980s accelerated their demise, with millions of manufacturing jobs lost.

According to Richard Hyman, professor of industrial relations at the London School of Economics, "another factor was the tougher competitive environment in which an anti-union stance seemed an attractive option to employers".

Union membership peaked in 1979, but in fact the number of strikes had been declining in the l970s as well, from around 5,000 a year in 1970 to 1,500 by l979.

The difficult economic climate, and the decline of piecework bargaining (which had encouraged strikes), all contributed to this decline.

Miners and police at Orgreave coking plant
Militant clashes alienated public support
Since the late 1990s, the decline in union membership has levelled off, with new laws and a renewed organisational drive by the unions keeping their numbers at around 8 million.

New types of unions

But it is a very different union movement from the 1970s, even if the numbers are about the same.

The biggest long-term change in the union movement has been the rise of the public sector unions, whose membership has been less affected by economic difficulties.

David Bradbury of the Office of National Statistics says that the typical union member now is likely to be a skilled professional or technician working in the public sector.

Professional Male 36%
Female 60%
Technical Male 37%
Female: 46%
Skilled Trades Male 30%
Female 25%
Plant Operatives Male 38%
Female 27%
Sales Male 13%
Female 13%
Personal service Male: 37%
Female: 30%
source: Labour Force Survey, ONS

In 2002, 29% of the workforce was in unions, but 60% of female professionals unionised, as compared to 38% of male process plant workers.

The weakest sector for unionism, however, is the fast-growing private service sector, with only 13% of sales and customer service workers in unions.

The change has meant that the big industrial unions like the Transport and General Workers Union, the GMB and the AEEU suffered big membership losses, while unions in teaching, nursing, and local government have seen gains, despite a series of mergers among unions.

And in recent years it has been the public sector which has been the most militant in terms of strike action.

Arthur Scargill with two police officers
Arthur Scargill refused to compromise
But fewer young people are in unions, with one-third of those over 50 in unions, compared to quarter of those aged 25 to 34.

According to Professor Hyman, "being a union member has ceased to be the social norm, and a new generation has grown up who not only are not trade unionists, but whose parents have never been in unions either."

New outlook

Another big change has been in the political and economic outlook of the unions.

As their bargaining power weakened, unions sought new means of influence, and the "new realism" took hold, looking for partnership rather than confrontation with employers.

And, according to Professor Hyman, this also weakened the power of local union activists like shop stewards, and unions adopted a more "strategic" use of power, where strike were the last resort, not the first course of action.

All these changes would have happened without the miners' strike, according to Professor Hyman, but perhaps more slowly.

The unions have attempted to regain some of their influence within the Labour Party, but they have found that although they can win votes at Party conferences, they cannot necessarily change policy.

And their complex bargaining relationship with the government is paralleled by the complicated negotiations over additional union rights in the private sector.

Although unions have gained some recognition rights and a minimum wage, Tony Blair's Labour party has made it clear that there will be no return to the legal immunities that they enjoyed before 1980.

So it may be that it is in relation to the Labour Party, rather than in terms of industrial bargaining power, that the biggest changes have occurred.

Politics, it seems, rather than economics, was always in the driving seat.

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