History of the Trade Union Movement in Britain Part 4

This radical history of the trade union movement in Britain runs from 1992 to 2005. The summary is based on “In Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism” by Rob Sewell, which you can read here. “In Cause of Labour” goes up to 2003, so I have added content from 2003-2005.

Here is a list of this series. You can read Part 1 here, which describes the British trade union movement from the 1700s to 1918. Read part 2 here, 1918 to 1964. Part 3 here, 1964-1992. Part 4 here, 1992 to 2005. Part 5 here from 2005 to 2010. Part 6 here from 2010-2015.

Ignorance is strength 1992-1994

Sewell describes the right-wing dominance of the TUC in 1992, especially by the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU). He also puts this down to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the crisis of Communist Parties internationally. Capitalism claimed the end of the USSR as a victory and a defeat for socialism. Sewell argues that it was actually a defeat for a “bureaucratic totalitarian regime that was a mere caricature of socialism.”

At the 1992 Labour Party conference, John Smith weakened the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions. The 1993 TUC Congress elected a new leader, who worked with Smith to “modernise” the TUC by “distancing the trade unions from the Labour Party and inviting Tories and CBI leaders to address TUC Congresses.”

In 1993, Unison was created with 1.4 million members, following a merger between the public-sector unions NALGO, NUPE and COHSE. Sewell describes structural problems following the merger that allowed the right-wing to dominate.

For Sewell, the trade union leaders had become our touch with the membership, which started in the 1980s. He explains the employer offensive to increase productivity and profits through “lean” production and Human Resource Management (HRM) or for Sewell “stress management”. This increased the pace and intensity of work. The limited elements of workers’ control such as “trade union control over the track speed, control over hiring and firing, length of breaks” were rolled back. This all resulted in increased worker health problems, accidents and deaths in workplaces. The new union leaderships showed little interest in these developments. Sewell describes this new ‘flexibility of labour’:

“deregulation, privatisation, casualisation, part-time working, fixed-term contracts, zero-hours contracts were introduced in a whole series of industries and services. Full-time jobs were subjected to “down-sizing”, as skilled workers were replaced by semi-skilled, and semi-skilled by unskilled. Jobs were created without security, pension rights, sick pay or holiday pay. Hand in hand with these changes went the demise of national agreements and the de-recognition of trade unions in a host of industries. In 1981, 4.5 million people were in part-time employment; by 1993 the number had risen to 5.8 million. Unlike those in full-time jobs, these part-timers had no legal protection at work and few rights.”

The new workplace methods of production saw a shift from Fordism and post-Fordism.

He describes in detail here this shift and how this was nothing new, just “they were simply modern variants of old fashioned Taylorism”. He gives manufacturing examples such as Rover and Timex, and British Home Stores in the service industries.

Sewell describes the high levels of child poverty at this time, the highest in the 12 EU member states. Also the growing inequality over wages between the top earners and the national average.

By 1993, many manufacturing workers were being lay-off and this was having a big impact on union membership which dropped to 7 million. This resulted in several union mergers such as the new rail union RMT, civil service union PCS and the local government union Unison. Sewell explains how this concentrated more power in few union leaders hands, which made the transformation of the union movement even easier. This created the foundations for the industrial unions in the longer term.

There was a general shift from well paid skilled jobs in industry to low paid unskilled jobs in the service sector. Sewell gives the example of all the new call centres and their appalling working conditions. This trend wasn’t to last and many of these call centre jobs have not been moved overseas to save employers money.

Sewell describes how the union leaders failed to resist the significant changes taking place. They were more interested in doing what the employers wanted – ‘business unionism’ – to get recognition deals so they were the only union at a workplace and this would guarantee a certain number of members and membership dues.

Blairism and the unions 1994-2002

In 1994, Labour Party leader John Smith died. Tony Blair replaced him with the full support of the capitalist media, establishment and right-wing trade union leaders. The Labour Party under Blair became ‘New Labour’ similar to the US Democratic Party. Sewell describes how it became a pro-capitalist party with “the capitalist class attempted to hijack the Labour Party and empty it of its class content utilising the services of an army of middle-class careerists and carpetbaggers who infiltrated the Party in considerable numbers, elbowing the workers to one side and occupying all the key positions.”

Blair wanted to weaken or break the link between the Labour Party and the trade unions. Blair distanced himself from the unions, like Thatcher had, giving them no favours. This disappointed the right-wing trade union leaders, who had hoped to return to the good old days of cosy deals. There was little resistance to the Blairites changes by the trade union leaders and in the Labour Party.

In the Autumn of 1994, there was a long-running railway signal worker dispute, that didn’t receive any support from the Labour Party. Royal Mail had a series of unofficial and illegal strikes in 1994 around the country in response to new management methods of ‘flexibility. There was little support from the right-wing leadership of the UCW union.

There was a dispute on Liverpool docks from 1995-98 after 80 dockers were sacked over a pay dispute. Another 400 refused to cross a picket line so were sacked. Merseyside Docks and Harbour Company (MDHC) then attempted to rehire some of them on worse contracts that were rejected by the dockers. There were supported by their wives in all kinds of solidarity work: “picketing, addressing meetings, raising money and spreading the message from one end of the country to the other.” The dockers also received international solidarity: “from Holland, Israel, the East Coast of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In January 1997, the West Coast ports from Seattle to Los Angeles/Long Beach were shut down as thousands of dockers took strike action as part of a week of international protest and solidarity. In all some 105 ports were affected worldwide.”

They were against the “Liverpool Echo” and the Tory government. The TGWU union made some public shows of support but in the end, was not willing to defy the anti-union laws. The new Labour government in 1997 was not willing to get involved. In 1998, 300 of the sacked dockers were forced to accept the company’s terms, some were left with nothing and big debts. Sewell explains that the TGWU union had the power to stand up to the Tory government and the anti-union laws but did not have confidence in their own membership. And how the union leadership preferred class collaboration with the bosses instead of defending the workers. This resulted in deep bitterness and resentment in the Labour movement. Read more details here.

1994 saw a record low of 280,000 days lost to strike action. A fifth of these were from the signal workers’ dispute. This was the lowest figure since records began 100 years before. Some argued that the working class had lost its fight but Sewell explains that they hid the growing anger, bitterness and frustration for workers. Things picked up in 1995, where the number of days lost to strikes doubled. Sewell describes that out of 494 strike ballots, 324 got support but did not result in an actual strike, because “a deal had been struck or the ballot was subject to a legal challenge or bogged down in legal difficulties.”

Here and here are accounts of the JJ fast food worker’s strike in Tottenham, 1995-6.

Sewell describes in some detail how Tony Blair, removed Clause Four (the Labour Party commitment to socialism) on the grounds of modernising the party. There was general support for Clause Four in the grassroots of the Labour Party and in the Labour movement so there was a lot of resistance to the change. There was a national ballot of members, with the Labour Party machine and capitalist press supporting changing Clause Four so Blair was successful in abolishing it. Read more details here.

Sewell describes the details of how Tony Blair aimed to change the Labour Party into a Liberal Party that was pro-business. Also the internal changes to the Labour Party: “The structures of the Party were changed, downgrading the annual conference and National Executive, and undermining the accountability of the leadership.”

The annual Labour Party conference no longer played a role in policymaking and all decision making was centralised under Blair’s control through Policy Forums. Sewell describes how several right-wing union leaders supported the Blairite changes and were rewarded with seats in the House of Lords.

Sewell explains how extremely unpopular the Tory John Major government was during the 1990s follow one crisis after another including the 1992 economic crisis, sleaze, corruption, spending cuts, and privatisations. At the 1997 General Election, the Labour Party got a landslide victory with a majority of 179 seats after 18 years in opposition. This was the greatest Tory defeat since 1832 and the start of modern Conservatism. Sewell argues that the size of the victory was due to the change of the mood of the voters in the country, rather than the cleverness of the Blairites.

Tony Blair was keen to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats after the election but following the huge majority was not able to do this without risking splitting the Labour Party. Many hoped that the new Labour government would repeal the anti-union laws but New Labour did not want to upset the City of London and the big corporations, so did nothing about this. Blair’s main concern was keeping the support of big business. There were some trade union reforms including restoring GCHQ workers trade union rights and introducing a minimum wage. The minimum wage started at a very low level and slowly increased over the years. Sewell describes it as ‘poverty pay’. And how even with this minimum wage, many employers ignore these laws and paid below it, not paying overtime and holiday pay. They cover this up by paying their workers piece-work rates – pay per item – instead of per hour.

Sewell describes how the Labour government continued or went further than the Tories: announced the Independence of the Bank of England and cut the social security bill, which included a cut to single parent benefits, one of the most vulnerable sections of society. The government also introduced university tuition fees.

Sewell describes the Blair governments close connections with big business, many donated to the Labour Party and received favours in return. Many trade union activists were not happy with the direction of the new government but the mood of the Labour movement was to give them a chance. The continuing economic boom also helped the Labour Party.

Sewell describes several bitter industrial disputes: “At Critchley Label Technology in South Wales, the bosses sacked 31 members of the CWU in a struggle over union recognition and redundancies. Those affected were mainly women workers. A number of other disputes around this time also involved women, such as the hospital workers in Hillingdon in West London, the Middlebrook Mushrooms workers in Yorkshire, and the 350-strong Magnet workers in Darlington. Each of these disputes showed the tenacity of those doubly oppressed and exploited workers, who most keenly felt the brunt of the employers’ offensive.”

It’s also worth quoting Sewell on the changes regarding achieving union recognition:

“On the issue of workers’ rights, Blair sided with the Confederation of British Industry’s interpretation of Labour’s Manifesto. The phrase ‘a majority of the relevant workforce’ that would vote in a ballot over union recognition, was interpreted to mean 50 per cent of the workplace electorate, and not simply those actually voting. The TUC eventually accepted a 40 per cent threshold. Other rights were included, but five million workers in small firms were excluded from the legislation. A concession however was squeezed out of the government that recognition would normally be granted where unions recruited 50 per cent ‘plus one’. But this was not automatic. The Act does not apply where there are less than 21 employees. This legislation was nevertheless used over the coming years to force recognition deals upon employers, but such ‘recognition’ only applies to pay, hours and holidays, and nothing more. By 2002, some 300 recognition agreements had been signed, a doubling in number on the previous year. But it was no panacea. Powerful employers could interpret the laws in different ways, further embroiling the unions in a legal quagmire for years.”

The Labour government introduced a Tory policy, Private Finance Initiatives (PFI), which allow private companies to take big profits from the public sector. Sewell describes the ongoing attacks on jobs, wages and conditions during this period. This resulted in a two-tier workforce in the public sector. Unison attempted to resist this but following protests from big business, Blair retreated so the two-tier labour market continued.

Due to the poor conditions for British workers, trade unionists fell back on the European Social Chapter, which serves as a minimum protection for workers in the EU. An example is the Working-Time Directive. Thatcher refused to sign up to the Social Chapter but Blair was under pressure from the Labour movement. Blair was also under pressure from Big Business so he “backtracked on a whole series of worker-friendly reforms, watering down or avoiding their implementation.”

Sewell explains how Blair boasted that Britain had the most deregulated economy in the western world, with the best climate for the success of big business. And this was alienating the working class, resulting in the number of days lost to strike action jumping to 1.3 million in 2002. This was more than double the 2001 figure and the highest since 1996. There were over a million workers involved, the highest since the miners’ strike of 1984. Sewell quotes the ‘New York Time’ “Railroad employees, mail deliverers, police officers, teachers, hospital workers and civil service unions are all threatening walkouts in the coming months, egged on by a new generation of radical leaders and playing to Britons’ discontent with the state of their public services.”

Sewell’s description of an unofficial strike on the Jubilee Line in London towards the end of 1998: “What began as a dispute over safety, developed into a strike over victimisation. The ‘sparks’ on the Jubilee Line created a powerful rank-and-file organisation in the process, which constituted a direct threat to the right-wing AEEU leadership. The workers donated £2 a week to a hardship fund and set up a body called simply ‘The Shop’, which acted as the catalyst for their unofficial struggles. With militant determination and organisation, they defied the Tory anti-union laws and took on their employers, the vitriolic campaign in the media, the Labour government and, not least, their own trade union leaders. In the end, they picketed every site, bringing everything to a standstill and scoring a magnificent victory with the reinstatement of the 12 victimised men. These actions reflected the growing discontent within the union that was to burst to the surface in the election for general secretary.”

The class divide grows 2000-2010

Sewell describes the rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor under Blair. The increasing inequality was caused by the limited public spending of New Labour. There were also serious health situations in deprived areas such as tuberculosis.

“Britain’s decline has assumed frightening proportions. After decades of neglect, the public infrastructure is crumbling before our very eyes. Housing, schools, hospitals, social services, roads, trains, tubes, buses, are clearly in a shocking state and, according to the perception of the overwhelming majority, are getting worse, not better.”

Blair announced billions of extra spending on the NHS but it seemed to have little impact. “Hospital Trusts up and down the country are already overspent and have announced cuts in beds, services and jobs.” Private Finance Initiative (PFI) hospitals are an expensive way to run hospitals, with some of the public money going to shareholders. This resulted in not recruiting, abandoning life-saving treatments, cutting vital services and reduced all acute in-patient beds.

Sewell explains how by 2003, there was little improvement in education. Despite Blair’s promises, Britain’s education standards were behind international competitors. There were several railway train crashes killing and injuring many. There was huge opposition to the privatisation of the railways, prisons and British Telecom. Most want these to be renationalised but the Blair government continued against public opinion. New Labour also introduced Public-Private Partnership for new roads, prisons, hospitals and schools. The private company does the building and then rents the infrastructure to the government or council. New Labour worked hard to reduce the unemployment figures and welfare bill by making it harder for people to claim benefits and forced them into low-paid jobs.

Sewell points to the bad local election result for New Labour in 2000 that indicates how unpopular the government was. Blair also blocked Ken Livingstone from standing as the Labour Party mayor of London candidates. Livingstone stood as an Independent and easily won, Blair’s Labour Party candidate came a humiliating third after the Tories. New Labour continued with their privatisation program, of air traffic controllers and the part-privatisation of London Underground.

The 2001 General Election saw the Labour government reelected with 167 seats but Sewell describes how there was little enthusiasm for Labour, and this victory was due to the continuing crisis in the Tory party. The turnout for the election was very low 59 per cent, compared to 71 per cent in 1997. The Tories heavy defeat in Wales and Scotland left a small rump in the Southeast of England. The Tory leader William Hague resigned and was replaced by Ian Duncan Smith.

During the election campaign, Blair announced that if elected Labour would radically reform the public services. Sewell explains that this meant ‘counter-reforms‘: “continuing attacks on workers’ terms and conditions and the introduction of flexible labour and pay in the public sector. Blair was determined to bring private capital and the morality and methods of the ‘market place’ into the public services, particularly in the form of PFI project.”

There were plans to introduce a US-style ‘enterprise culture’, where the minimum wages were much lower than the UK and over 70 million have no health insurance so live in fear of getting ill. There were also plans to introduce the Tory idea of ‘free-standing foundation hospitals’. This would create a two-tier system in the NHS. This would be part of the ongoing privatisation of the NHS. There were also plans to bring in pro-market ideas to schools and other educational institutions. The trade union leaders made public statements against these plans. Blair responded by calling them ‘wreckers’ by trying to block the transferring hospitals to private companies to profit from it.

Sewell describes how the disappointment on the political front caused the working class to focus on the industrial front. In late 2001 and early 2002, there were strikes on the railways and London Underground over pay, reducing working hours and safety concerns. Sewell also describes the strikes in BT call centres of poor working conditions in terms of pressuring workers to work faster and monitoring of calls. There was the Friction Dynamics strike from 2001-2003 Sewell explains the general situation:

“A survey conducted by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about the pressures on workers’ lives concluded that job insecurity was at its highest level since the Second World War. Far from job insecurity falling as unemployment fell, research showed that the workplace was dominated by a lack of trust, a loss of control over the pace of work, general anxiety, and a sense that workers were being driven to extremes. Despite two decades of “New Realism” and the campaign by the TUC for ‘partnership’ agreements, only 26 per cent of workers said they believed workers and management were on the same side. The overwhelming majority believed that the class divide was as wide as ever.”

From the Autumn of 2002, there was a firefighters strike over the cutting of 6,000 jobs and a demand for a wage increase of nearly 40 per cent to make up for past low pay increases. The armed forces were used as scab labour. The Labour government threatened to use powers in the new Fire Services Act to force a final settlement. There was also talk of banning strikes in essential services. There was strong support for the strike among firefighters and the public but Sewell explains that the FBU union leaders failed to push for an all-out strike and step up their actions. The strike dragged in 2003 and in the end, the firefighters were forced to accept small wage increases. This opened the door for ‘modernisation’ in the form of cuts and redundancies.

Britains big employers started employing US union-busting firms to block ballots for union recognition through the sacking of pro-union workers. These firms would also have one on one meetings with workers and put a lot of pressure on them to put the business first.

The autumn of 2003 saw several wildcat/illegal postal workers’ strikes, mostly in the Southeast. It was a defensive strike in response to Royal Mail cutting 30,000 jobs through voluntary redundancy, the ending of the second daily delivery and the attempt to impose new ‘flexible working’ arrangements. The strike ended with Royal Mail agreeing to not punish the strikes and to not introduce a new flexible contract, so this was a win for the striking postal workers.

Several car manufacturing plants faced closure in the early 2000s, with the Rover Longbridge plant being saved but the Ford Dagenham and Vauxhall Luton plants closing, losing 1,400 and 2,500 jobs respectively.

Militancy is back 2002-3

Sewell finishes up the book in 2003 with some analysis of trade union strength at that point. By 2002, strikes were at their highest level since 1990. “ Strikes took place on London Underground, amongst teachers, local government workers, hospital workers, steel workers, dockers, call centre staff, the postal workers, museum staff, engineering workers and other sections.” There were also many other small, short strikes that were not officially recorded. Sewell explains this was a working-class reaction against the right-wing domination of the unions. The summer of 2002, saw over a million council workers strike, this was the biggest strike of women workers in British history. It was also the biggest strike since the General Strike in 1926. Sewell describes a general feeling by employers and unions that strikes were on the increase.

For Sewell, the right-wing dominance of the unions and in society has meant that the unions have been in retreat for over twenty years. This resulted in about only 20 per cent of private-sector workers in unions at this time. Sewell explains this is due to the decline of manufacturing in Britain and how the Blair government has allowed employers to attack unions. He gives some examples: “in April 2001, rail bosses used the anti-union laws against the RMT to frustrate industrial action, at a cost of £50,000 to the union. The law is also used to frustrate union recognition claims, as was illustrated in the National Union of Journalists’ case to gain recognition at the Daily Telegraph.”

Sewell describes how the Fairness at Work laws, although flawed, did help unions force employers into recognition deals, voluntarily or following long legal battles. Recognition agreements were achieved with the National Union of Journalists at the Daily Telegraph, American Airlines, Boots, Meridian TV, Kwik-Fit, Greenpeace and the Church of Scotland. This resulted in union membership in Britain reaching seven million, reversing the long decline over the previous 20 years.

2002 saw over 300 recognition deals, double compared to 2001: GMB gained 44,000 new members, RMT gained 8,000 or 12 per cent in 11 months, ASLEF had a 25 per cent increase in five years to 18,000 members. PCS gained 18,000 new members to a total of 267,000.

Sewell describes the election of left-wing trade union leaders following the general discontent in the unions with the Blair government: “First Mick Rix defeated Lew Adams to become general secretary of the train drivers’ union ASLEF. This was followed by the election of Andy Gilchrist in the Fire Brigades Union, Billy Hayes in the Communications Union, Jeremy Dear in the journalists’ union, Mark Serwotka in the civil service union PCS, Bob Crow in the RMT, and Paul Mackney in the college lecturers’ union Natfhe. Now this process has affected all unions, including the giants such as Amicus, GMB and TGWU. This has begun to transform the whole balance of forces in the trade union and Labour movement in Britain.”

Later in 2003 left-wing Tony Woodley was elected the new general secretary of the TGWU union. There was also the surprise defeat in the engineering union AEEU/Amicus of the right-winger Sir Ken Jackson by Derek Simpson, including a vote-rigging scandal by Jackson and his supporters. Sewell goes into good details on this general shift to the left here.

The new general sectary of AEEU/Amicus, then announced that all the ‘sweetheart deals’ (deals that benefit the employer, not the workers) would be up for review and any that were not compatible with the union members interests, would be cancelled.

The 2002 TUC Congress supported a repeal of the anti-trade union laws. There was also a vote on an anti-war motion related to the Iraq war. The motion was supported by those present but the right-wing unions TGWU, GMB and AEEU/Amicus, demanded a card vote and used their block vote to vote against the motion so the vote was lost.

Several left-wingers were elected to the TUC General Council. The TUC Congress passed several resolutions that caused clashes with New Labour ministers: the right to take secondary action and for better protection for strikers, called for a national demonstration in response to the pension scandal, “condemning British and US governments’ unilateral decision to wage war against Iraq. It opposed any future US attacks on states such as Iran, Syria, North Korea and Cuba, and demanded a speedy withdrawal of coalition troops and the restoration of control of Iraq to the Iraqis.” The TUC Congress also back radical proposals on increasing minimum wage and opposing New Labour’s Public Private Partnerships.

2003 had the UK’s biggest ever peace rally against government plans to invade Iraq. Here is some analysis.

2003 saw several strikes. Guards on trains went on strike Easter bank holiday weekend due to a dispute about their safety role. There was also a long-running dispute over train drivers pay and a strike over Eurostar workers pay. Unofficial action by BA workers forced management to retreat over new working practices. Local authority nurses in Scotland went on strike over wages and most had their demands met. Low-paid domestic workers and porters at Royal Bolton Hospital and Whipps Cross Hospital in London went on strike for wage increases and better conditions.

2004 saw several job losses: 104,000 civil service jobs, 1,200 workers sacked at P&O, Norwich Union moved 7,000 jobs to India, Northern Foods sacked 1,000, 600 jobs lost at the Kodak plant in Nottinghamshire, and the closure of the Jaguar plan in Coventry, which will affect its supply chain and threaten thousands of jobs in Coventry. Bill Mullins explains that the decline of industry in Britain resulted in the ongoing loss of decent jobs. Nearly one million manufacturing jobs were lost between 1997 – 2004 and the capitalists claimed these were replaced by jobs in the service and financial sector. This is not the case, globalisation has created a ‘race to the bottom’ for many workers, as they are forced to work harder and longer to keep up with overseas competition.

PCS members in response to the planned job losses to the civil service went on a one day strike in November 2004. Other strikes in 2004 included: Serviceair baggage handlers strike at Gatwick Airport, railway workers over pay and pensions, London Underground strike over pay, Lynx lorry drivers over pay, and jobcentre and benefits staff went on strike over low pay.

Two unions disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004, due to disagreements with the Blair government: RMT and FBU. The 2004 Employment Relations Act brought in some minor protections for workers.

Ken Smith gives a good analysis of the new left-wing trade union leaders. They had a range of political perspectives, what unites them is being against Blair and asking awkward questions. He critiques their failure to ask the ‘big’ awkward questions: “how do they tap into the mood of growing anger in the workplace and win big victories for working-class people, which can successfully rebuild the unions and also be translated into the ‘new radical agenda’ of a new mass party of the working class?”

Ken Smith lists several strikes that took place: “Prison officers have recently taken strike action and there are a number of significant strikes taking place – such as the nursery nurses in Scotland, Hoover workers in South Wales, engineering workers in Birmingham and journalists in Blackpool.” And a number threatening strike action: “Railworkers, CIVIL servants, airport workers, local government workers, and even racing stalls handlers are currently threatening action on pay and conditions.”

He describes a debate at the top of the union about their future. It focused on how they can be ‘effective’ through reorganisation and membership growth, instead of how best to challenge bosses and the New Labour government. He explains that two processes forced the union leaders hands: to be seen to be doing something for members to get reelected and to make unions less costly and more cost-effective at servicing their members.

Smith describes how union membership increased slightly in 2003, the first time in 20 years, to 29.1 per cent. Of the 7.42 million union members, nearly half in 2004 were women. Smith references an interesting LSE study on the benefits of union membership for members. It found that the benefits of being a union member in terms of better wages, pensions, sick pay, workplace accidents have all declined significantly. He also quotes the figure that 48 per cent of workers have never been in a trade union. And how private-sector union membership had declined, public sector employment and union numbers had increased. [1]

The union leaders and Labour Party leadership were under pressure from angry trade union members for their failure to do much for the ordinary people. At the 2004 Labour Party conference several resolutions were adopted on renationalisation of the rail industry and opposing government plans to further privatise public-sector housing. Government ministers responded by stating that these resolutions would not be acted upon. [2]

In February 2005 signally and service control staff on London Underground won the best improvements in pay, working hours and conditions in the entire rail industry for more than a decade.

During 2005, A United Nations Committee looked at UK worker rights and found them restrictive. The problems related to the many restrictions placed on unions before they can support their members in strike action. And also to the lack of constitutional rights of individual workers to strike.

Over a million public sector workers were threatening to go on strike over the planned increase of retirement age from 60-65 and worsen their pension entitlement. The New Labour government back down. MG Rover in the West Midlands closed in April 2005 with the loss of 20,000 jobs. [3]

The 2005 General Election saw New Labour re-elected for the third time but its majority was reduced from 166 to 66. It only won 36 per cent of the popular vote, the lowest of any governing party in history. More people failed to make it to a polling station 39 per cent than voted for the Labour Party. The Tories got 32.3 per cent of the vote. In the popular vote Labour got 9.5 million, the Tories 8.75 million so not that far behind considering how unpopular they were. There was a very low turnout of 51 per cent. New Labour’s great asset was hatred of the Tories and their lack of credibility with the economy. [4]

Between 2000-2005, the number of days lost to strikes was around 500,000 days in 2000 and 2001. It increased to over 1.3 million in 2002, then dropped to 500,00 again in 2003. It increased to 900,000 in 2004, then dropped again to 157,000 in 2005, an all-time low. [5] Trade union membership numbers had a sharp declined from 1980, 13.212 million, then started to level off from the mid-1990s, 8 million, but continued to decline at a slower rate, until 2005 at 7.473 million. [6]

In a 2004 article, Steve Schifferes describes how the union situation has changed. In the early 2000s, the typical unionised worker was likely to be a skilled professional or technician working in the public sector. In 2002, 29 per cent of workers were in unions, with 60 per cent of female professionals in unions and 38 per cent of male process plant workers. The least unionised sector is the growing private service sector with only 13 per cent of sales and customer service workers in unions. The big industrial or general unions such as TGWU, GMB and AEEU had been losing members. The unions for teaching, nursing and local government had gained members. Of those over 50, a third are in unions, of those aged 25-34 it is a quarter. He describes how joining a trade union was no longer a social norm, two generations have grown up without having any contact with unions. Schifferes explains that unions bargaining power has been weakened by the ‘new realism’ partnership approach to employers, instead of confrontation. This approach sees striking as a last resort, rather than the first course of action which has weakened the power of local union activists or shop stewards. The unions still had some influence in the Labour Party and could win votes at the Party conference but could not change Labour government policy. Unions made some gains around recognition rights and a minimum wage but the Blair government would not repeal the Tory anti-union laws that gave union legal immunities before 1980.


  1. https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/351/5810/12-06-2004/a-summer-of-discontent
  2. http://socialismtoday.org/archive/88/britain.html
  3. https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/388/4388/14-04-2005/mg-rover-the-ugly-face-of-capitalism and https://www.theguardian.com/business/2005/apr/10/politics.motoring
  4. http://socialismtoday.org/archive/92/britain.html
  5. https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/employmentandemployeetypes/timeseries/bbfw/lms
  6. https://www.statista.com/statistics/287241/uk-trade-union-membership/