It all gets worse

Ross McKibbin

  • The New Industrial Relations? by Neil Millward
    Policy Studies Institute, 170 pp, £15.00, February 1994, ISBN 0 85374 590 0

For much of the last few years Britain has not had industrial relations, at least not that the public would be aware of. ‘Industrial relations’ to most of us connotes strike unreasonable trade unions – all that is understood by the ‘Seventies’. We have repeatedly told pollsters that unions had too much power and were ‘damaging’ the economy; even trade unionists agreed with this, though they usually exempted themselves and their own unions from blame. The Government has very successfully exploited this folk-memory, and the stated aim of its industrial policies – the restoration of managerial authority – has been pursued with undisguised determination and no political ill-effects. For the Government, the question is one of power. Ministers have not been interested in alternatives to trade unions because most alternatives presuppose a kind of consultative procedure and thus some limitation on management’s ‘right to manage’. Whether its trade union legislation was responsible, or the economic policies which destroyed much of the country’s manufacturing capacity (so rendering workless a good part of the population), the Government’s success is unquestionable. Since its peak in the late Seventies there has been a huge fall in the number of trade unionists and a significant decline in the number of establishments which recognise trade unions. Half of all workplaces in industry and commerce have no union members and only 40 per cent of them recognise unions for the purpose of pay bargaining. In 1990, collective bargaining – the historic British form of wage bargaining – covered only 43 per cent of employees in industry and commerce. Aside from the miners’ strike, which affected hardly anyone except the miners, but them disastrously, and the occasional public sector strike, we have lived since 1979 in an environment without industrial relations – that is, without strikes.

Events of the last few weeks, however, suggest that industrial relations have crept once more into our lives. The signalmen’s strike has reminded us that the present government, notwithstanding its assertions, has a formal incomes policy, by which the public sector is expected to bear the strain of private-sector pay settlements which have plundered the economy at all levels of private employment – particularly at the top. And shortly before the cabinet reshuffle the then employment secretary, David Hunt, actually spoke to the unions for the first time since anyone could remember. What that portended, of course, we will never know, since Mr Hunt has been replaced by the narrowest ideologue in the government; but it is unlikely that Mr Portillo will leave industrial relations alone.

This is, therefore, a good moment for the Workplace Industrial Relations Survey to publish another of its excellent analyses of British industrial relations. The Survey constitutes a series of detailed snapshots derived from an elaborate questionnaire sent to a large sample of British workplaces in 1990. The snapshots are mostly four years old; but not much has changed since then, except perhaps to confirm the Survey’s findings. This, then third publication, does two things: it gives us a clear idea of how strong (in practice, how weak) trade unions now are, and why; and it examines how far the two most commonly advocated alternatives to traditional bargaining – ‘single union agreements’ and ‘human resource management’ – have been adopted by British industry.

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