British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics. Vol. I: The Postwar Compromise, 1945-64 
edited by John McIlroy and Nina Fishman et al.
Ashgate, 335 pp., £35, January 2000, 0 7546 0018 1
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British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics. Vol. II: The High Tide of Trade Unionism, 1964-79 
edited by John McIlroy and Nina Fishman et al.
Ashgate, 389 pp., £35, January 2000, 0 7546 0018 1
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The TUC: From the General Strike to New Unionism 
by Robert Taylor.
Palgrave, 299 pp., £45, September 2000, 0 333 93066 5
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Two days after May Day, the festival of labour, a story appeared on the front page of the Financial Times under the typically downbeat headline: ‘Work permit shake-up targets skill gap.’ It told of the Government’s introduction of a permit system which would allow rapid entry into the UK for foreign professionals and highly skilled technicians – doctors, nurses, software engineers, information technologists and others. The same package proposed that non-British students who possess skills which are in short supply should be able to move easily from completing their degrees to finding employment. Aimed primarily at Asia and Central/Eastern Europe, the scheme was commended by David Blunkett as proof that the Government was ‘delivering nothing less than one of the world’s most flexible modern work permit systems. To maintain a buoyant economy we need to ensure employers can quickly fill key posts where shortages exist.’

This initiative came a few weeks after the US Government had announced that it was seeking to attract up to half a million software engineers from India – one of the world’s software hotspots. Around the same time, the German Government agreed – in the face of some opposition from the Right, who played on fears of youth unemployment – to issue visas to a hundred thousand Indian IT workers. Ireland and Australia have similar plans. It seemed, in other words, that some of the world’s richest countries were willing and able to draw on new reservoirs of talent and skill in countries where relatively sophisticated education systems were turning out men and women instantly employable in the rich countries at rates of pay as much as twenty times more than they could command in their own, relatively or absolutely poor states.

Blunkett’s enthusiasm for flexibility and modernity disguises a number of difficulties – chief among which, for a Cabinet minister in a centre-left government, is the effect on developing and transitional economies of wooing away their best and brightest in such a massive, multilateral brain drain. Beyond that, the flurry of efforts to draw skilled labour into the dominant industrial sector seems to point to the globalisation of labour, or at least the beginnings of it; to the development of a technocratic élite which would be encouraged to be stateless; and to the possibility of Europe’s tighter immigration restrictions being balanced by an influx of professionals and technicians. ‘Global citizenship’ would thus be extended from the upper to the middle classes – a lifestyle equivalent to the extension of the suffrage. For some years, commentators have pointed out that globalisation has meant the mobility of all forms of capital except labour: now, that is no longer the case. The voracious requirements of the information economy and the inability of the advanced states’ education systems to meet them mean that when it comes to recruitment the world is the high-tech companies’ oyster.

The main non-barking dog in all this has been the British trade-union movement. Blunkett’s announcement did not mention the unions, nor did the FT writers feel it necessary to seek a comment from any union representative. Issues like pay, conditions, the transferability of grades and seniority between the country of origin and the UK, benefit entitlements, pension rights, the length of stay, expected employment trends in the industries, union enrolment of the new workers – none of them came into the picture. Yet these are the kinds of thing about which trade unions have sought – and, for part of the period covered by British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, sought successfully – to be automatically consulted, both because they wanted to attract, or demand, the membership of new entrants to the job market, and because they wanted to have some say over the way these newcomers would fit into the existing structures. Consultation of this kind was progressively removed from the agenda under the Conservatives; not very much has been reinstated.

Unions, it is true, talk to departmental officials and ministers more regularly and co-operatively than at any time in the Thatcher-Major period. But they do so on an issue by issue basis. They have almost no representative presence in the British state. There is no longer a National Economic Development Council – flaccid beast though it was – on which they could have equal status with employers; there is no trade-union representation on the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England (there was, deep into the Thatcher period, a trade unionist on the Bank’s Board of Governors – Sir Gavin Laird, of the Engineers); there is a trade unionist on the BBC’s Board of Governors, but he is a deputy general secretary (of the Communications Workers), where once he would have been the general secretary of a large union. The one trade-union leader brought into government since 1997 is Liz (now Baroness) Symons, formerly general secretary of the First Division Association, which represents senior civil servants. She was given a job, not in an economic or home affairs ministry, but in the Foreign Office, from which she was promoted to the Ministry of Defence. She is also the only trade-union leader who is a working peer. The only leading official to whom the Prime Minister talks regularly is John Monks, the TUC General Secretary, who shares something of his political approach and whom he usually sees discreetly, rather than for talks heralded by the TUC. Union leaders have had, perforce, to get used to a vastly diminished status – though none of them has experience of leadership under anything other than Conservative, and now New Labour, administrations and thus no experience of their word being closely attended to, even feared, by ministers and by the public.

And it was feared. Harold Wilson’s 1964-70 and 1974-76 Governments and James Callaghan’s 1976-79 Administration spent more time cajoling, ‘standing up to’, browbeating, placating and schmoozing with union leaders than with any other group. Robert Taylor’s close account of the TUC has in it some wonderfully revealing passages on these (and other) periods: none so rich as the gathering of 1 June 1969 at Chequers which brought together Wilson, his First (and Employment) Secretary Barbara Castle, Jack Jones of the Transport Workers, Hugh Scanlon of the Engineers and Vic Feather, the recently elected TUC General Secretary. The hours of argument circled round the Government’s need – political as much as economic – for legally enforceable constraints on industrial action. Jones and Scanlon refused to countenance anything more than a strengthening of the TUC’s procedure for disciplining unofficial strikes – and that only reluctantly.

The event is vivid in part because Taylor relies on quotations from the memorandum Wilson wrote that evening. In it, he dispassionately records that

there was clearly some fear that an incoming Tory government would seek to go very much further, but the two union leaders were totally confident of their ability to make Tory-type legislation unworkable and drew pictures of British industry stopped by a series of shorter or longer strikes in a large number of industries. They thought nothing of the argument that failure to deal with this problem would make such a government and such legislation more likely.

Jones and Scanlon’s assumption, which Wilson disagreed with but doesn’t seem to have thought outrageous, that industrial action should dictate the policies of an elected government, and thus the choice of government itself, seems very distant now. It shows the force which the union leaders thought they commanded, and their inability to grasp that their power was predicated, at least in the UK, on the willingness of the government of the time to deal with and concede to them. This attitude was shared even by the most sober and centrist trade unionists. ‘I do not believe the present Government or any other can continue indefinitely to withstand the inevitable progress of the democratic forces which are at work in industry and in every other part of society,’ Len Murray, the General Secretary of the TUC from 1974 to 1984 and a harsh realist, argued one year into the Thatcher Administration. He lived (and lives still) to see himself proved wrong. ‘Democratic forces’ were not destroyed by Thatcher, but redefined. The move towards industrial democracy, which is what Murray had in mind but which would always (to be accepted by society at large) have required the unions to make a credible commitment to moderation, was halted – but by the unions themselves, as much as by Margaret Thatcher. It has given us an economy in which organised labour has very little real corporate power.

This is a situation without parallel in any other European state. In different ways, unions in France, Germany and Italy carry a good deal more clout than they do in the UK – even though in France, for example, a much smaller percentage of workers belong to them. Yet the way people work is changing more radically than at any time in the past century, as nation states and national institutions respond to the formation of a global market whose effect is to revolutionise working patterns everywhere. The greatest challenge to labour comes at a time when its collective voice is more subdued than at any point since the war. Except for the rather embattled organisations which the British unions belong to, either individually or through the TUC – the International Labour Organisation, the international trade-union secretariats, the trade-union committee of the OECD and the European TUC, all of them small and lightly funded – the unions have little leverage on the globalisation process.

Indeed, it is almost exclusively as victims that unions enter the media ‘debate’ on the subject. They were in the news continually last April when BMW was divesting from Rover, which under various names – BMC, British Leyland, BL – had been one of the great British industrial relations disasters. When corporations disinvest or cut employment – a consistent trend in the car industry, as in most other branches of manufacturing – the weakness of the unions is made painfully obvious. On this occasion, union officials spent long days taking meaningless placebos administered by the flak-catchers at BMW’s headquarters in Munich – but in the end all they could do was to back the bid by the better of the two companies which were competing for the remains of the group.

Once great utopians, unions today are severely practical, concerned to solve only these problems which are in front of their noses. Yet now, if ever, is the time for a bolder vision. Capital, after all, has never been more audacious, more talented, more exciting – nor more revolutionary. Such vision as there is on the Left comes from those who write about globalisation. In What Is Globalisation? the German sociologist Ulrich Beck writes about ‘how democracy will be possible without the securities of the work society’ and suggests that public or civic labour – that is, work currently performed ‘invisibly’ in the voluntary sector – could inform the basis of a ‘new social contract’:

civil labour would have to appeal to everybody, and not just be a collecting tank for the unemployed. It would have to become a second centre of activity that made the democratic substance of society more secure . . . instead of remaining within the national framework, civil labour might come to support and enrich international civil society and its various networks and social movements.

There is nothing comparable in Britain: no large proposals for the future; no effort to marry the visible and likely effects of globalisation to a social vision within which the unions might play a significant role. This is not because the TUC staff, or a handful of union officials, are unable to imagine such a world: it has to do with the old problem of institutional sclerosis and mutual suspicion and, even more, with the fact that they have been pushed to the margins of public life, told to mind their own business.

How did organised labour come to this pass? The most popular explanation is that it has only itself to blame: it grossly misused the power it had acquired in the decades after the war and consistently rejected any kind of social contract with which a government, even a Labour government, could possibly live; it provoked first Callaghan, then much more full-throatedly Thatcher, to rein back its power by means of deflation, unemployment, legislation and privatisation. This account has for the most part been accepted, quietly but nevertheless unmistakably, by the leading figures in New Labour. For their part, labour leaders have in the past decade and a half ceased to believe in an Alternative Economic Strategy which would be able to protect British industries, subsidise companies to guarantee employment and to plan agreements with government and management that would specify output, growth and investment, while leaving wages to the operation of ‘free collective bargaining’. They now believe in a free economy, free trade and the market. Since the unions still provide the Labour Party with about half its income, they must be seen and heard in the inner councils. But so long as New Labour remains dominant, they will have a small role and a quiet voice.

I think this popular version – that it was the unions’ own fault – contains something of the truth. So, in differing ways, do the two labour journalists who contribute essays to British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics, Geoffrey Goodman and Robert Taylor, doyens of a once mighty profession. In his affectionate account of labour reporting Goodman says that the refusal by the National Union of Mineworkers to involve itself in the running of the nationalised coal industry ‘established a mantra of adversarial relations which continued through the years of the nationalised industries . . . it was very much the conflicts between workers and management in the public sector which became the daily routine diet of the industrial correspondents – right up to the miners’ strike of 1984-85.’ In a fascinating essay about George Woodcock, the TUC General Secretary in the 1960s, Taylor expresses similar feelings about the unions’ inability to establish a relationship with government which would give them a lasting right to joint decision-making. Woodcock, he says,

tried in his own particular way to persuade the TUC into shouldering wider responsibilities while always acknowledging the strength of the voluntarist tradition of industrial relations. If he was unable during the 1960s to reconcile the genuine tensions between voluntarism and regulation that lay at the heart of British trade unionism, this turned out in the end to be as much a tragedy for the wider political economy as for either the TUC or himself.

These are instances in a long history, in which the unions again and again spurned the opportunity, in whatever guise it was offered, to take any responsibility for production, or to be party to an agreement in which a Labour government would plan output and growth. For one thing, this might have meant taking responsibility for losses, and, for another, a government that planned output and growth would also have to plan – in other words, restrain – wages. The crucial figure of this period was not Woodcock, a more than usually isolated TUC Secretary, but Frank Cousins, who swung the Transport Union sharply to the left and defined his creed by saying that, in a capitalist free-for-all, unions were part of the ‘all’. This is reminiscent of the reply given by the first leader of the American Federation of Labour, Samuel Gompers, when asked what he wanted – ‘more’. There is much discussion at the moment about ‘Anglo-Saxon’ business culture, but there is also an Anglo-Saxon trade-union culture, common at least to the US and the UK, in which free collective bargaining has been held to be an absolute good – and much good has it done the unions. Many union leaders of the Left – Cousins very much included – made speeches about the need for an incomes policy under socialism, and their supporters in Parliament did the same, but since socialism was never in place when the subject came up, the idea could always be rejected, and always was, for ‘socialist’ reasons. In a forgotten episode (forgotten, too, by the essayists in these volumes), Harold Wilson proposed a ‘national dividend’ in 1967. It was to be worked out by government, management and unions each year in line with production figures, productivity and orders, with the workers’ share calculated ‘on the basis of steadily rising incomes, and on a basis that ensures that the amount distributed does not run ahead of the amount we earn by our production’. Whether Wilson expected the union leaders, whom he knew well, to bite is not clear. Michael Foot gave the rationale for killing off the idea when he rose in the Commons to say that the Left was not against an incomes policy – ‘indeed, we believe such a policy is essential to socialism’ – but that in this case the Government had ‘associated incomes policy with furious deflation, with their whole economic policy of stringency and with the deliberate creation of unemployment’. This refrain was constantly repeated, until the whole notion of agreeing on incomes under any government became quaint.

Robert Taylor’s TUC history has this as its inevitable core – inevitable because the issues facing the trade-union movement at its zenith revolved around pay, conditions, union rights and government policy. The book is, as Taylor admits, a history largely of the TUC General Secretaries, with substantial portraits of the most powerful union leaders: Bevin, Deakin, Jones and Scanlon – all but Scanlon leaders of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and all dominating, even autocratic figures. The TUC General Secretaries, by contrast, since the days of Citrine, the first full-time Secretary, have been cautious, centrist, hobbled by the need to reflect a consensus among leaders jealous of their privileges and powers. The figures Taylor describes – Citrine, Woodcock, Feather, Murray, Willis and (now) Monks – are intelligent working-class men of necessarily even temper. They have tended to believe that unions could only increase their power and deliver higher standards of living to their members if the economy did well. This means that they have favoured, while never putting it so baldly, a successful capitalism, whose raw edges would by smoothed by the state and which would be constrained, by union power or legislation or preferably both, to negotiate with the unions.

For a brief period during and immediately after the war, when Bevin dominated the movement, it seemed as if the British unions might become as powerful as the German ones were (and, with modifications, remain). But the figures on the Left who came to power in the 1960s and 1970s, above all Jones and Scanlon, with men like Alan Fisher of the Public Employees and Clive Jenkins of the Technicians in support, scorned the co-operative approach: they strove to create a political-industial ratchet which would turn the country towards socialism, no matter what government ran it. Their failure was a substantial cause of the failure of social democracy, until New Labour began the task of re-creating it.

Though Taylor is scornful in passing of New Labour, his lucid evaluation of John Monks – the present General Secretary – portrays someone hoeing a hard row rather successfully. In a carefully considered speech in Manchester in 1999, Monks said that ‘we now live in a world where . . . capitalism reigns supreme. There is nowhere it cannot reach.’ In such a world, he argued, the unions should seek to preserve a European social model based on ‘a sense of mutual reliance, the sense of working together, the sense of seeking to eliminate poverty, to have civilised cities, to ensure the rich do not get too far out of reach, that wealth is not too conspicuous and that consumption does not go too far over the top’.

It’s a conclusion which Taylor endorses, from his (oldish, once right-wing Labour) social democratic perspective. Not so, however, the academics who contribute essays to British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics. They do not, on the whole, agree that organised labour bears part of the responsibility for its own marginalisation. They prefer the view, which is still a guiding principle of the Left, that Thatcherism unleashed a blitzkrieg on a labour movement which had never been fully included in the British polity by shilly-shallying Labour Governments. Central to this approach is the belief that Labour Governments were never serious about running a corporatist policy. In an essay in the second volume, John McIlroy and Alan Campbell – two of the volumes’ three editors – write that ‘incomes policies, focused firmly on wage restraint and pushed for insistently by the Treasury, were presented as temporary expedients and they worked as such. Their articulation with profits, prices, the social wage and the distribution of income and wealth was slight and rhetorical.’ This is nowhere substantiated in the two volumes: indeed, in the essays which have anything to say about pay policy – Andrew Thorpe on the Labour Party and the unions, Andrew Taylor on the Tories and the unions and Robert Taylor on Woodcock – it is contradicted. Andrew Taylor writes that Edward Heath made a sustained effort to convince the unions to become partners in a corporate state after the failure of his lurch towards the free market in 1972, and that Vic Feather was convinced the offer was genuine (although he failed, as Woodcock did, to convince his colleagues on the TUC General Council). According to Robert Taylor, Woodcock believed that

unless the TUC was modernised by the unions themselves to take on more collective responsibility, then a future government was as likely to introduce industrial relations as to restrict their activities and disengage the state from economic management with a resulting abandonment of any commitment to full employment. Events under Margaret Thatcher’s premiership confirmed Woodcock’s realistic analysis.

Before taking office in 1974, Thorpe writes, Labour made an ‘explicit commitment that wages policy would not be a one-way street’ – and, once in government, delivered a new Trade Union Act, Acts on Health and Safety at Work, the Equal Pay Act, employment protection and other trade-union-friendly measures. It is true that the economic problems which engulfed Wilson and Callaghan’s Governments were a prompt for tightening the screw on wages. It is also true that one of the centrepieces of Labour’s 1974-79 term, the (Bullock) Commission on Industrial Democracy, which was intended to produce a system for putting workers on company boards, got nowhere. But that was, to a very large degree, because the unions, who then organised about half the workforce, insisted that they were to be the only channel through which these representatives could be selected, a proposal which would have excluded the other half of Britain’s workforce, creating a real problem for a system which was supposed to be ‘democratic’ – and one which guaranteed that the Labour Party would not get the support of the Liberals, which by then it needed to get its legislation through. But it’s wrong to argue that the unions hadn’t benefited from Labour legislation, or that there was nothing to gain from further co-operation, or that governments did not want a corporate bargain.

This approach colours these essays very significantly. They are consistently presented as the work of scholars anxious to set the record straight, but many are clearly polemical (there is nothing wrong with this, as long as it is acknowledged). Among the editors’ priorities – and this is shared by many of the contributors – is to restore class as an organising principle. In their introduction, the editors write that the currently fashionable historical studies of patriarchy, gender and identity ‘have demonstrated sectionalism, subordination and compatibility with capitalism. Despite their incalculable educational impact, they are no substitute for the potential universality of movements and history rooted in class.’ A visceral hostility to New Labour stalks through many of the essays like a Ramsay MacDonald-in-waiting, ready to distort the past in order to betray the future:

just as much as Thatcherism, New Labour and New Unionism have defined their projects in opposition to a past selectively rendered . . . [this tendency] foregrounds the necessity to recover the diminishing role of historians in assessing and challenging appropriations and partisan recovery of the recent past which may close off alternatives and provide a false basis for future strategy and policy by political and union activists.

The assumption that the contributions to these volumes render the past in a non-selective and non-partisan way is one that few historians would seriously make about their own or anyone else’s work: all history is partisan, or at least only a version of events. The majority of these essays are in fact militantly partisan, partial, selective and further a particular political agenda. This is not true of all the pieces: there are detailed and compelling accounts of strike actions which stand in their own right, without any need of an organising context. On the whole, however, the authors tend to default to the militant: in his account of the ‘Glorious Summer’ of 1972, Dave Lyddon offers a frank example of this, when he argues that Blair, like the Tories, ‘demonises’ the 1970s, that the TUC leadership now ‘sanitises’ the decade by playing down the extent of rank-and-file militancy, and that academics ignore or falsify the period (it is not clear if this is generally thought to be deliberate – a view taken by at least one of the academics – or accidental). ‘All three responses,’ Lyddon writes, ‘with their different political agendas, are united in expunging the memory of the high tide of rank-and-file militancy in postwar Britain.’

There is certainly no expunging in Nina Fishman’s two essays here, on the engineering and shipbuilding strikes of 1957 and the London bus strike of 1958. They are clearly sympathetic to the rank-and-file engineers and bus workers, but restrained and detailed – and properly careful to note, for example, that the right-wing (in Labour terms) union leaders, regarded with aversion in many of the essays, were solidly anti-Conservative and culturally working-class. Fishman also shrewdly includes the comment of the then Times labour correspondent, who wrote of the bus strike that ‘in the days when wages were little above subsistence level, workers would often hold out for months on next to nothing . . . but workers today, with payments to keep up for rent and television and even cars, have a great deal to lose from a prolonged strike.’ Alan McKinlay and Joseph Melling are very good, too, in their piece on shopfloor politics from the postwar period to the late 1950s and on the struggle of workers to resist the expert supervisor: they preferred the seasoned foreman with two decades of experience (and a greater cultural affinity). This is a fruitful area, revealing the craft-based conservatism of many trades where expertise and time and motion studies were (rightly) seen as threats not just to established and relatively comfortable working patterns, but to traditions of self-reliance and control of work: the Boulting Brothers’ 1959 comedy I’m All Right Jack touches on this.

The most interesting essay in the book, based on surveys of workers’ attitudes, is by the sociologist Mike Savage: interesting in part because it flouts the editors’ injunction to ‘foreground’ institutional history, favouring instead an argument about individualism in the union movement and in employment generally. Savage gives one excerpt from his interviews, in which ‘John’, a bank worker, tells him that he has no desire to move into management (though he was in his mid-forties, and could have done so) ‘because of the way I look at work, it is only a means to an end to me . . . it has always seemed . . . that if you aspire to the management side of it you have to devote more of your own time and personality to the bank, which I am not prepared to do.’ This and other insights from his interviewee leads Savage to argue that

we need to avoid counterpoising individual and class identities, so that it is assumed, almost by definition, that any individual awareness is wrapped up with the weakness of class awareness . . . a very strong sense of pride [informed] the way that the individuality and autonomy of male workers could be exercised, a pride born from a comparative frame of reference in which salaried workers were regarded as being ‘dependent’.

Two films underpin Savage’s observations – Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and Paul Schrader’s Blue Collar (1978) – and help him make the relevant point that the right-wing popular press has notoriously caricatured the attempts of workers to preserve a culture separate from that of the conformist managerial or middle class as being the work of proletarian automatons marshalled by Communists.

Yet rugged individualism of the kind Savage explores is liable to be contemptuous of class boundaries, too, and inclined to regard unions not as bulwarks against bourgeois conformism, but as oppressive. Trade unions have to make their members conform at crucial times – especially when they lead them into the kinds of action praised by the writers of British Trade Unions and Industrial Politics. Above all, they have to hold up their hands together – the (different) pictures on the front of these two volumes show them doing just that, in the all but forgotten days when strikes were authorised by a show of hands. Part of the reason that militancy declined, and the militants were ousted or tamed, was that some union members resisted the pressure to conform – the dinner ladies of Walsall who refused to strike in 1982; the Nottinghamshire miners who went down their pits in defiance of the NUM in 1984-85; the drivers, electricians and journalists who were bussed through the picket lines at the Times Newspapers plant in Wapping in 1987. The government in power encouraged these apostasies, but it did not create them. I was a labour correspondent in the 1980s, and interviewed the ‘blackleg’ workers in all these engagements. Most would have defined themselves as working-class, but they did not equate the decision to take industrial action with class, or feel that wage militancy was always in their personal or class interests.

Some of the essayists in these volumes do make this equation, and it colours what they write. But there is a more serious problem. To ‘foreground’ class, and rank-and-file militancy, is to endorse what was for the Left at the time the dominant tactic – especially on the part of the Communist Party and the various Trotskyist groups, both of which have essays here devoted to their industrial organisation (negligible in the case of the Trotskyists). Wage militancy was always and everywhere seen as a good: good because it encouraged workers to unite around a particular demand, because it damaged capitalism (though, often, it did more damage to workers and their families) and because it could be read by the Left as the prelude to a wider revolt. But what was this revolt to consist of? And what would happen afterwards? Would wage militancy at some stage transform itself into socialist restraint for the sake of increased output and a planned society? Or was socialism simply envisaged as a moment of endless plenty, when problems such as wage restraint, labour shortages and relativities – an abiding problem of industrial relations everywhere – would melt away? The answers were distressingly vague: more socialism was about the extent of it. Social contracts were spurned, workers’ democracy regarded either as a sell-out or another opportunity to increase trade-union power. British trade unionism remained so stubbornly free market that its corporate power waned to near marginality. The great irony was that the Left, rather than the Right, of the labour movement encouraged it in its ways.

The challenge for contemporary trade unionism is to seek out ways of exerting pressure on the forces of globalisation. Yet this is hard and may even be beyond the capacities of the unions, whose business is to look after their members’ day to day interests. It is also the case that the modern state cannot give security to workers because it cannot control firms – a ‘planning agreement’ with BMW would not have stopped the loss of billions of pounds on Rover, nor done more than delay BMW’s announcement that it intended to sell.

Yet there seems to be no other way. Today’s equivalent of ‘planning agreements’ are audacious schemes like those I described at the start to import hundreds of thousands of people in order to feed the maw of the information technology revolution. These will bring clear benefits, especially for people whose living standards will be sharply raised by transferring from a low to a high wage economy: but they will also demand some adjustments on the part of the ‘exporting’ and ‘importing’ countries. There is everything to be said for union involvement in these large movements of labour across national borders. Indeed, in essays on unions and race and unions and women, the authors of these volumes show – not vividly, to be sure, but adequately – that the unions played and continue to fulfil a tremendously valuable, low-key, day by day function. They work things out: in the course of doing so, they display illiberal as well as liberal traits, selfish as well as generous impulses. But they are a medium of social debate, and of action. Their marginalisation is not healthy for this society, but their reconstitution cannot be undertaken on the basis sketched out by McIlroy et al.

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Vol. 22 No. 21 · 2 November 2000

John Lloyd (LRB, 19 October) says that the trade unionists were once ‘great utopians’ and are now ‘severely practical’ and in doing so underlines his ignorance of what goes on at the grass roots of the labour movement these days. You need to be very practical when you are fighting to defend asylum seekers, or making sure that the minimum wage is implemented. But the more utopian anti-capitalist movement is gaining support among trade unionists. Haringey Trades Council was one of a number of trade-union organisations that sent a delegation to protest at the IMF meeting in Prague, because we still dream of a better society as well as doing what we can to make the present one livable in.

Keith Flett
London N17

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