Vuvuzelas Unite

Andy Beckett

  • Trade Union Bill (HC Bill 58)
    Stationery Office, 32 pp, July 2015
  • Trade Union Membership 2014: Statistical Bulletin
    Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, 56 pp, June 2015

The headquarters of the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) is a basement room beneath a dry cleaner’s in Central London. From a loading bay behind a row of shops, concrete steps lead down to a flimsy door, with a pile of leaflets beside it and ‘IWGB office’ scribbled above it on a piece of A4. Behind the door is a whitewashed space with metal shelves, neatly stacked with placards and furled banners, and four desks. Nearest the door sits the IWGB president, Jason Moyer-Lee. He is a stubbly American in his late twenties, dressed in a T-shirt and chinos, as if he were working for an internet startup. He has been involved in trade unions for four years.

In 2012 Moyer-Lee helped found the IWGB in order, as its sometimes self-dramatising, revolutionary red website puts it, to organise ‘the unorganised, the abandoned and the betrayed’. In June, when I first visited the offices, Moyer-Lee told me it already had six hundred members. ‘The vast majority are cleaners, bicycle couriers and security guards,’ he said. ‘There’s a whole goldmine of opportunity out there, in low-paid, outsourced work.’ So many people want to join the IWGB, he went on, that they don’t have the resources to cope: ‘We’ve put a temporary freeze on membership. We’re turning people away.’

Membership costs between £4 and £8 a month, depending on whether you’re in part-time or full-time work. In return, among other things, your workplace grievances will be addressed by the IWGB’s activist machine. ‘Our approach is, hit employers where they’re weak,’ Moyer-Lee said with a smile. ‘Ramp up public pressure, using social media and by staging loud and disruptive protests, surprise protests, mini-occupations. Keep applying that pressure until they cave. We’ve won a number of campaigns in the last year merely with the threat of confrontational tactics. In December, we went to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and said, “We’re giving you a month to improve your offer to our members,” who are cleaners there. The day before the month was up, the school agreed to give our members up to 35 days’ holiday and six months’ sick pay a year.’ Moyer-Lee leaned back behind his busy desk and smiled again. ‘You have to create an incentive for the employer to offer something.’

Sometimes in Britain, trade unionism can be a pretty straightforward business. But not often. ‘For almost three centuries,’ Keith Laybourn writes in A History of Trade Unionism: c.1770-1990 (1992), it ‘has been rejected, both formally and informally, by the state and the employers who saw it as a dangerous movement which threatened the free operation of the market and restricted the introduction of much needed technological change’. Or as the employers’ pressure group the Confederation of British Industry put it more bluntly in evidence to a Commons committee in 1993, ‘there has never been a system of union rights in Britain; no right to organise, no right to strike, no right to representation.’

Laybourn’s book describes the range of weapons used against British trade unionists: policemen, troops, blacklists, blacklegs (strike-breakers, or ‘agency workers’ as the present government calls them), and above all ‘the large body of legislation’ that emerged from the 18th century onwards ‘to restrict their activities’. Even in the rare periods when unions have been powerful and comparatively unmolested, such as the 1970s, if you look beyond the version of history told by union-bashing journalists and politicians and popular historians – that is, most of them – it is striking how contested and limited that power and freedom actually was.

In 1976 workers at the Grunwick photo-processing plant in North London went on strike over working conditions and their employer’s refusal to let a union represent them. For two years the strike gathered a widening coalition of trade union allies, from local post office workers to Yorkshire miners. Grunwick’s mail-order business was boycotted, its premises besieged by mass pickets. Right-wing Britain convinced itself that all this constituted, as Margaret Thatcher put it in her autobiography, an ‘outrageous abuse of trade union power’. But the strikers lost. One key reason was that the Labour government – supposedly the unions’ creature – refused to give pickets the legal right to detain vehicles. Without this, no amount of crowd muscle could ultimately stop Grunwick, aided by the police, moving goods and replacement workers in and out. The unions’ hold over the British workplace from the 1940s to the 1970s, the historian Robert Taylor concluded in 1994, was ‘always more illusory and less substantial than their many enemies liked to suggest’.

The same goes for union militancy in general. The graph of working days lost annually in Britain to strikes and other labour disputes is flat for most of the 20th century. Two periods of sporadic confrontation – from shortly before the First World War until the mid-1920s, and from the late 1960s to the mid-1980s – stand out. So far, the 21st century has been more placid still. Since the 2008 financial crisis, despite an almost unprecedented squeeze on wages and the public sector, where British trade union members are disproportionately concentrated, the number of working days lost to strikes has been lower, each year, than in any year between 1900 and 1990.

Behind the rhetoric, union legislation has often been as much about taking advantage of union weakness as curbing union dominance. Thatcher had been an unpopular and, it sometimes seemed, possibly unelectable opposition leader; she became prime minister in 1979 largely through her use of the union issue. ‘Someone’s got to grasp this nettle,’ she told the big political interviewer of the day, Brian Walden, in one of her many telling interventions during the strike mayhem of the ‘winter of discontent’. But once in government she bided her time for more than two years, waiting until the increased unemployment caused by her economic policies had eaten into union membership and self-confidence. In late 1981 she made her move, appointing Norman Tebbit as employment secretary. Tebbit believed, as many Conservatives always have, that unions should be subservient organisations: ‘Their prime role,’ he lectured Len Murray, the general secretary of the TUC, in 1983, ‘should be to help improve the performance of their firms which provided their members with jobs.’ Yet Tebbit, like Thatcher, let increasing joblessness and other changes in the British economic and political climate do much of his anti-union work for him. By the time he finally introduced union legislation in October 1982, there were more than three million unemployed (the number had nearly tripled since Thatcher’s election), but her government had been made almost impregnable by victory in the Falklands War earlier that year. The unions’ postwar heyday was already over.

Further laws followed in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990 and 1992. Often euphemistically called Employment Acts, the new laws first restricted or ended the unions’ most expansive powers: the closed shop, which made union membership compulsory in some workplaces; and the secondary picket, the common strike practice of picketing enterprises related to the one where the primary dispute was taking place. Then the legislation turned to the unions’ most basic weapon, requiring that the vote to strike be carried out not by a workplace show of hands but by secret ballot, and that employers be informed of the intention to hold such ballots well in advance. Finally, the acts targeted the unions as institutions, forcing them to open their finances to ever closer inspection by an outside regulator, the certification officer.

All these laws were devised by the Conservatives but eventually accepted by Labour. On 31 March 1997, with Labour about to return to power, but still anxious to establish its mainstream credentials, Tony Blair chose to highlight his acceptance of the anti-union consensus in an article for the Times: ‘Let me state the position clearly, so that no one is in any doubt. [Under Labour] the essential elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will remain … The changes that we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world.’

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