This radical history of the trade union movement in Britain runs from 2005 to 2010. It is a follow on from the summary posts based on “In Cause of Labour: History of British Trade Unionism” by Rob Sewell. 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.
This post took longer than I expected and it has been very interesting to learn about this five-year period from a trade union perspective, which mostly passed me by at the time. I have not had time to go into the radical political analysis that Rob Sewell does in his book, but have provided links to this in the text. I have used a lot of Trotsky groups (Socialist Worker Party and Socialist Party) internet references, not because I advocate those politics, it’s just they are some of the few groups doing radical reporting in this period. They provide a good analysis, even if I don’t agree with all of it or their proposals. I also found a lot of good information on the union tag of the libcom.org website, a Libertarian Communist tendency. There were several sources I didn’t have time to fully go through if people are interested they include the Socialist Party newspaper, LRD Publications, and the strikes and pay campaigns tags on the Socialist Worker website. Sorry for any strikes and disputes that I missed out, I’m happy to include them if you get in touch.
The Great Recession and the defeat of New Labour 2005-2010
Days lost to strike action in this period went from 157,000 days in 2005, up to over one million in 2007, to then drop to 365,000 in 2010. Trade union membership went from nearly 7.5 million in 2005, to increase to 7.6 million in 2006, peak at 7.65 million in 2008 and then decline to 7.3 million in 2010. The UK unemployment rate is the percentage of economically active adults over 16 that are unemployed. It went from 4.8% in 2005, to 5.7% in 2008 and then a sharp increase to 7.6% in 2009, then 7.9% in 2010.
The G8 (Group of Eight major economies) meet in Scotland in July 2005, with 200,000 people marching through Edinburgh in support of Make Poverty History plus several other protests.
In August 2005, 700-800 Gate Gourmet workers at London Heathrow Airport were sacked related to a dispute over pay and conditions and replaced by agency workers. They were making the airplane food on trays. In response baggage handlers, loaders and bus drivers went on strike in support but eventually had to return to work. This was the first instance of secondary action in twenty years. The TGWU union negotiated that some could return to work but on less pay and benefits, as the company had previously wanted. 56 of the women that were older or unwell were not allowed to return and offer compensation. Some were unhappy with this so took it to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal. They lost, the tribunal stated that because they left the assembly line, they were taking unofficial strike action so could not claim unfair dismissal.
The 2005 TUC congress saw a lot of left rhetoric but little effort to challenge the New Labour government. The Labour Party conference in Brighton saw significant conflict between the leadership and the trade unions. This resulted in several defeats for New Labour over ‘NHS backdoor privatisation plans’, maintaining the retirement age of public sector workers at 60 and the support for secondary picketing for strikers. There was also the manhandling of an 82-year-old man, Walter Wolfgang, who was removed from the conference after shouting “nonsense” as Foreign Secretary Jack Straw defended Iraq policy. The Labour Party was forced to apologise. This article gives a critical update on the ‘awkward squad’ of left union leaders. Some either moved to the right, the rest stayed in the Labour Party, hoping to have some influence over Gordon Brown when he became Prime Minister.
The government and public sector union agreed to protect public sector workers pensions but all new entrants to the sector would see their pension age increased to 65 and benefits reduced. The TUC announced it was stepping up its protection of private-sector workers pensions as many employers had abandoned their responsibilities to their workers while protecting senior level and boardroom pensions.
In early 2006, the rank-and-file of the armed forces called for a union “Amidst equipment shortages and failures, the rash of court martials in Iraq, misgivings over new deployments of 4000 troops to Afghanistan in the spring, bullying, and the fall in recruitment and retention of soldiers, rank-and-file members of the Armed Forces have started calling for a union.”
On March 28th 2006 over a million public sector workers, across 12 unions, went on a one day strike over pension conditions. 700,000 of the strikers were women, making it the largest women’s strike in British history. This gives a summary of the impact around the country. In 2005 public sector workers threatened strike action over pensions and a deal was negotiated with the government to protect the pensions of existing workers, with new workers starting on worse conditions. This deal did not extend to local government workers resulting in the strike. Some union activists were pushing for the deal to include new workers across all of the public sector. Sadly, the unions called off any further strikes and gain a couple of concessions. This was then presented to the union memberships as an improvement and members voted in favour. This weak resistance by UK unions can be compared to France around the same time when the French government announced plans to change the working conditions for those under 26 to be on a 2 year trial period. This results in street protests, riots, blockades of rail tracks and motorways and the law was scrapped and the French government agreed to pay large subsidies to encourage companies to take on unqualified young workers.
London Underground saw strikes at the start of the year over a shorter working week. The RMT union won a campaign to not see any cuts to services and jobs of Northern Rail services following a government review. There were rail disputes for Network Rail signallers, on Central Trains and Virgin Cross Country trains guards.
2006 saw the closure of the Peugeot plant in Coventry with the loss of 2,300 jobs. MG Rover at Longbridge closed in 2005 with the loss of 6,000 jobs and another 20,000 job losses from business in the supply chain. A third of Rover workers were still unemployed a year later. Between the 1979 and 2000s British manufacturing lost 50% of its workers from 7 million to 3.4 million. A million of these jobs during the New Labour years. Between 1964 to 1999, UK annual growth in manufacturing was 1.1%, compared to 4.5% in Japan and 3.7% in the US. In the same period, total manufacturing output in the UK increased 47%, compared to 242% in the US, 163% in Italy and 117% in Germany. Michael Fisher from the Socialist Party explains the TUC’s response to this in its two 2006 policy documents that advocate promoting industrial development by giving large and strategic capitalist manufacturing businesses financial support. Fisher is highly critical of this and explains that the decline of UK manufacturing was caused by the short-termism of companies, they priorities short-term profitability over long-term strategic investment in new produces, production technologies and workforce development. 
2006 saw allegations of cash-for-honours, where a knighthood could be purchased with a £10,000 donations to the party and a peerage for £50,000. The police investigated after the House of Lords appointments commission blocked four of Blair’s peerage nominations because they had made loans to the Labour Party.
Bill Mullins from the Socialist Party reported on the 2006 TUC Congress. It was Blair’s last and he received a lot of hostility from union delegates. The conference was managed to avoid controversy. In terms of who replaces Blair, one in ten TUC delegates support Gordon Brown, with six in ten supporting John McDonnell, the left candidate for Labour Party leader. The TUC delegates are generally to the left of the trade union members as was seen in the 1994 Labour Party leadership election. Mullins describes the TUC’s strategy at the time:
“Brendan Barber, TUC general secretary, and the majority of the General Council want the TUC to continue to play the role of would-be ‘partners’ with the bosses. It is not an accident that the right-wing union leaders act this way. They are ideologically committed to the capitalist system. They do not have any perspective of a socialist society so they are convinced that if the system cannot afford reforms for their members then they will act to stop any movement from below, to act as the police of the rank and file, in effect, until ‘times get better’. At the TUC it was only the left leaders who gave any voice to demands from the working class for the unions to fight back. Unfortunately, the left is a small minority on the General Council.”
The National Shop Stewards Network (NSSN) was set up in 2006/07 to “rebuild the strength of our working-class movement from the bottom up by creating local, regional and national networks to put elected reps and shop stewards from different unions in permanent contact with each other.” Sadly, not long after this it became dominated by the Trotsky group the Socialist Party. 
In the middle of 2007 the 2007-2008 global financial crisis hit:
“Prior to the COVID-19 recession in 2020, it was considered by many economists to have been the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. Predatory lending targeting low-income homebuyers, excessive risk-taking by global financial institutions, and the bursting of the United States housing bubble culminated in a “perfect storm”. Mortgage-backed securities (MBS) tied to American real estate, as well as a vast web of derivatives linked to those MBS, collapsed in value. Financial institutions worldwide suffered severe damage, reaching a climax with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 and a subsequent international banking crisis.” In the US, there were runs on banks with investors withdrew billions, the stock market dropped by record amounts and the US Congress passed legislation to buy up toxic mortgages and nationalise banks. Here is a timeline for the US and UK. Here and here are some analyses of the financial crisis from the Socialist Party.
In June 2007 Gordon Brown replaced Tony Blair as Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party. Here and here are critiques of Blair and Brown’s New Labour project. By October 2007, Brown’s honeymoon was over with him trailing the Tories in the polls and facing several crises: anger at public-sector cuts, economic slowdown, calls for an EU referendum. Two reports released in 2007 showed how 30 years of neoliberalism by Tory and Labour governments had resulted in increased poverty in the UK. 2007 saw the formation of Unite the Union, a British and Irish trade union following a merger of Amicus, and Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU).
A two-day strike by British Airways (BA) cabin crew over sickness absence, pay and staffing, was called off at the last minute when the union reached an agreement with BA bosses. Southampton care workers’ held a three-day strike over contracts. 4,000 workers at Airbus Broughton in North Wales held an unofficial strike in response to the company restructuring programme and planned job losses.
400 signallers and supervisors working for Network Rail in Scotland called off a strike at the last minute over the implementation of a previously agreed 35-hour week agreement. In September there was a 36-hour strike by over 2,000 engineering and infrastructure workers employed by the private consortium Metronet on the London Underground. Metronet was having financial problems and had planned to transfer workers to another company in the consortium. The strike was to bring London Underground maintenance and infrastructure back in-house. It was successful and also won major concessions over jobs and pensions. In the Autumn of 2008, Metronet Rail chief executive confirmed that the Metronet workforce would be transferred to London Underground.
2007 saw several strikes at Royal Mail related to ‘modernisation plans’ that the CWU union believed would result in 40,000 job losses. They took place in June, July and through most of early October. On October 12, Royal Mail got a High Court injunction banning planned strikes for October 15 and 16. Royal Mail and CWU then reached an agreement. Here is a description of the poor deal offered to CWU members that 64% voted to accept. Here is a piece examining the 2007 Royal Mail dispute.
There was an ongoing dispute between civil service workers and New Labour over planned job losses and low pay. Civil service workers went on strike in January 2007 against New Labour’s plan to cut over 100,000 jobs. In May, 250,000 civil service workers went on strike against job cuts, low pay and privatisation. There were attempts to join these struggles together. In the second half of 2007 Unison, Unite and GMB had balloted local government members over strike action over a low pay offer. GMB and Unite were consulting members if they wanted to accept the offer but did not recommend the offer. Following zero concessions from the government, Unison members voted in favour of strikes, but the Unison leadership backed down from strike action. In November, PCS members voted in favour of strike action for December. This was pushed back to January 2008 and then two days of strikes took place in March. This was followed up with a one-day strike in April over pay by civil servants, teachers and lecturers.
Here is a description of the strikes in 2007 and what went wrong. This article gives a summary of the pay disputes in 2007 at Royal Mail, NHS, teachers, further education and local government.
By the Spring of 2008, Gordon Brown saw support for his government collapse. New Labour was struggling in the opinion polls and the Tories under David Cameron were making a comeback. There was an ongoing dispute with public-sector workers over pay, ordinary people struggling with food and fuel price increases and the building economic crisis. In May 2008, saw the Labour Party lose the Crewe and Nantwich by-election with a 17.6% swing to the Tories, the worse local council elections since record began, and Tory Boris Johnson winning the Landon Mayor election.
Following the terrible election results, Blairites in the Labour Party were looking to replace Brown to avoid electoral defeat at the approaching General Election. Polls showed that none of the alternatives to Brown were any more popular, due to the economic and social situation that New Labour had managed. The Labour Party conference in September 2008 was a stage-managed affair but the levels of working-class anger were reflected in some of the speeches and resolutions. 
The trade union leaders reacted to the New Labour election disaster by encouraging the memberships to remain loyal to Labour at the next General Election to avoid a Tory victory. Rank-and file trade unionists were applying pressure to the TUC leadership over rising prices and wage restraint, which forced the TUC general secretary to make a mild criticism of the government. 
Read here for a description of Britains housing crisis in 2008 and how New Labour failed to deal with it. This article from late 2008, describes the fluctuating poll rating for Tory leader Cameron and New Labour’s Brown. Read here for a description of the rising unemployment levels caused by the recession in the UK. In November, the government was forced into a U-turn over privatising the Post Office Card Account, which distributes pensions and benefits payments. There were concerns that it would result in the closure of 3,000 post offices, on top of the 2,500 that were being closed.
Workers at the seven BAA airports were due to go on strike in January 2008 over protecting their final salary pension scheme. The strikes were called off when BAA agreed to “proper consultation” on the proposed changes to the final salary scheme.
Teachers held a one-day strike in April over pay. Tens of thousands of teachers took part and it is believed to of affected 8000 schools. It was the largest teachers strike in 20 years. Another strike ballot was held in the Autumn but with a low turnout and a very small majority, the National Union of Teachers decided not to call for further action.
In the rail sector, the year started with a dispute between London Underground and RMT members over ticket officer closures, safety and use of agency workers. In the Autumn RMT suspended a strike of 1,000 engineering and maintenance workers at the private infrastructure company Tube Lines. The union had accepted a backdated pay deal. RMT members were angry that the strike had been suspended as there was no offer on final salary pensions, which was very important for many workers. Cleaners working for private contractors on London Underground won the living wage through strike action.
A two-day strike by guards at First Great Western resulted in the company agreeing to not use managers to drive or work as guards on the trains. Signal workers in the North East of England were striking over staffing issues. Network Rail maintenance workers were striking over pay and conditions and Network Rail signal workers in Scotland struck over rostering and transfer issues, which forced the company to agree to a deal. Southeastern Trains were facing strikes over two issues, getting rid of guards and a below-inflation pay offer to retail and engineering staff. There were ongoing strikes on East Midlands Trains over pay and conditions, and the role of guards. Train managers at Eurostar voted to strike over breaches of an agreement on new shift patterns.
Here and here are two informative reports on Unison and its 2008 national conference. They describe how the Unison leadership controlled the agenda of the conference and which motions were discussed, to reduce the influence of rank-and-file members.
Hannah Sell from the Socialist Party describes the economic and political situation at the start of 2009. Brown and the Labour Party’s poll rating had recovered following the New Labour response to the economic crisis. The government led the international application of Keynesian economics to increase state spending by bailing out the banks to stimulate demand, which had wide support from the capitalist class. There was no interest in ‘softening’ the treatment of ordinary people. When an opposition MP asking if the estimated 45,000 repossessed homes could be rented out, he was told that the government is separate from the banks, that are run on commercial principles. The government did indicate it will grant tax cuts for those on low pay and increase state expenditure through (already planned) public works. There was also growing pressure to provide carmakers and dealers with the same assistance as the banks. Chancellor Alastair Darling stated that the extra public spending would be recouped by cuts to other areas of public spending, such as further cuts to the civil service. Sell, explains how the Tories, responded to the economic crisis by proposing a ‘monetarist’ approach, ‘classical’ Thatcherism, which is a commitment to balanced budgets. This means driving down the living standards of the working class and in previous economic crises, this has made them worse. Sell, predicted that if the Tories win the next election, then they will likely implement austerity. She is critical of the trade union leaders failures to defend workers through the crisis.
A UN report found that out of 21 developed countries, children growing up in the UK suffer: “the greatest deprivation, worse relationships with their parents and are exposed to more risks from alcohol, drugs and unsafe sex than those in any other wealthy country in the world.”
In 1999, Blair set a target of reducing child poverty by half by 2010 from 2.9 to 1.7 million. In 2009, it was estimated that child poverty would fall to 2.3 million and that the government would need to invest £4.3 billion to meet the target. It was also predicted that spending on this at the time would result in child poverty increasing to over 3 million by 2020. 
Eleanor Donne from the Socialist Party describes how the economic crisis was impacting women more servery than men: women were losing full-time jobs as the twice the rate of men; caused the government to de-prioritise legislation on equal pay for women; failed attempts at councils to implement equal pay by reducing men’s pay to equal women’s. She also quotes the figure that 30,000 women a year are sacked for being pregnant, even though this is illegal.
Ben Robinson from the Socialist Party describes how Britain’s youth (under-25s) were suffering under the economic crisis: 875,000 under-25s were unemployed; 7 in 10 under-25s work in low-paid jobs; and 40% of 18-24 year-olds who wanted a permanent job were not able to find one.
Here and here are two descriptions of the economic crisis in 2009 from the Socialist Party. This article identifies the economic crisis as the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with it starting to be called the ‘the Great Recession’. It was the first time since 1945 when there was a global downturn, a decline in world output and trade at the same time. This article looks at who is to blame for the economic crisis – the bankers, stock market dealers, financiers and the political class. By the end of 2009, the country was in the run-up to the general election, which needed to be held by June 2010. The mainstream parties all agreed that there would be deep cuts to public services, pay restraint and increasing unemployment. The debate between them was on the severity and speed of the cuts. 
The 2009 Lindsey Oil Refinery strikes were a “series of wildcat strikes that affected the energy industry in the United Kingdom in 2009. The action involved workers at around a dozen energy sites across the UK who walked out in support of other British workers at the Total’s Lindsey Oil Refinery. The Lindsey Oil Refinery construction workers went on strike because employment was not offered to them on a £200 million construction contract to build a hydro desulphurisation unit at the site.”
Here and here are two reports on the Visteon dispute, with commentary on the class struggle nature of the battle. Visteon produced parts for Ford Motor Company at several sites in the UK. In March 2009, Visteon sacked 600 workers at three sites, Belfast, Basildon and Enfield, resulting in a two-month battle of occupations, roof-top protests, 24-hour pickets, lobbies and demonstrations. Visteon gave the workers a poor compensation deal, which they rejected. The workers started plans to picket Ford Bridgend which brought Visteon back with a better deal that workers accepted. Their pensions were unresolved. In 2014, the Visteon ex-workers won a £28 million compensation deal for their pensions. Here is a critical analysis of the struggle.
In July, the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight was occupied by workers for 18 days over the loss of 600 jobs from the two factory closures. The workers were demanding decent redundancy pay as what was offered was terrible in most cases. There was a large rally in support. Here is an analysis of the occupation that is critical of the union support for the dispute. The workers occupying the factory were served dismissal notices hidden under pizza so they are not eligible for redundancy payments. The occupation ended when bailiffs entered the factory to enforce an eviction order. According to this timeline, workers received back pay and redundancy money. Here is the website for the campaign. Here is a report on the Vestas occupation a year later in 2015.
There was also the 51 day occuptation of the Prisme factory in Dundee, Scotland and the eight-week occupation of the Waterford Crystal plant in Ireland.
2009-10 saw more Royal Mail workers striking over Royal Mail’s refusal to discuss modernisation plans that would affect the job security of postal workers. There were a series of wildcat strikes in the summer of 2009. CWU opened a national ballot from industrial action in September 2009. The is was strongly supported and two waves of national strikes were held in October. A third wave was announced for early November but these were put on hold until New Year to allow talks to take place. Postal workers accepted a deal in April 2010, here is a critique of why the deal is bad for workers and customers. Here is a detailed report on the strike from October 2009.
The end of 2009 saw the start of a two-year dispute between British Airways and its cabin crew over job cuts and changes to staff contracts. There were 22 days of walkouts that saw mass participation in rallies and on picket lines. It cost British Airways £150 million in lost revenue. BA used a legal loophole to stop several strikes from happening. BA also set up a scab ‘union’ to undermine cabin crew’s strike ballots. An agreement was reached in May 2011 that resolved the original issue and complaints that had come up during the dispute including the loss of travel concessions for cabin crew and arbitration of dozens of disciplinary cases, including sackings, that were linked to the dispute. A book was written about the dispute.
There was an eleven-week dispute between Leeds Council and Leeds refuse workers over plans to equalise the pay of men and women, where some workers would see a significant reduction in pay. The strikes resulted in Leeds Council offered a deal where 20 staff got a pay cut but most got a pay increase, which was accepted. Brighton refuse workers were also planning strike action over wages but were called off after the Council made concessions. Chester refuse lorry drivers working for FOCSA struck for a day over a low pay increase offer.
On the railways: ticket office staff struck over holidays; train conductors struck over attempts to pressure staff into working Sunday’s, rail workers on East Midlands Trains struck over the company’s failure to guarantee that there will be no compulsory redundancies; rail workers on Arriva Cross Country voted for strike action over pay and conditions; National Express East Anglia workers struck over treatment and conditions; guards on First Scotrail struck at least three times over plans to introduce driver-only trains; guards on the East Coast mainline balloted for strike action in May 2010.
The RMT union achieved a significant victory on London Underground (LU) following 3,000 workers receiving 90-day redundancy notices. This broke an agreement from 2001 where LU agreed that none of their employees would be forced into redundancy. The RMT strike campaign forced LU to guarantee that no staff will face compulsory redundancy. train drivers at First Capital Connect refused to work overtime related to a pay increase dispute. Signal workers in Wales struck over the imposition of rosters, which continued into January.
A long-running dispute 2009-2010 between Network Rail and RMT members ended in late 2010. RMT securing a 7% pay rise, a £2,000 lump sum and a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies. Network Rail used the courts and anti-union laws against the strike action.
There was the first even national IT strike in late 2009 at Fujitsu, where workers were defending pensions, jobs and pay. There were big picket lines at Fujitsu offices in Manchester, Warrington, Crewe and Belfast, with 1,600 Unite union members striking. In March 2010, workers excepted a deal from management, with the total number of redundancies falling from 1,200 to 800. The end date for those being made redundant was extended and those leaving the pension scheme got a 5% pay rise.
There were ongoing strikes in 2009 and 2010 at 14 universities and further education colleges in opposition to cutbacks that would result in job losses. Here is another report on these FE strikes. Teachers were balloting over the scrapping of SATs tests at primary schools. At the 2010 teachers union conference, members voted to ballot for strike action over planned cuts to the public sector and freeze teachers pay and pensions.
World trade fell by 16% in 2009, here is an assessment of the world economy at the start of 2010. And here is an assessment of the sorry state of capitalism in early 2010. The economic crisis in Greece looked like it may default on its national debts, which was sending shockwaves through Europe’s financial and political worlds. The Greek and EU political class were all in agreement that the working class would need to pay through serious public sector cuts. The Greek people responded with several general strikes of the public and private sectors that brought the economy to a standstill. By May 2010, it was questionable if the Eurozone would continue.
Here is a report on how capitalism was failing young people before the economic crisis began. And another report on the structural inequality in Britain in 2010, with the gap between the richest and poorest growing.
In early 2010, the Trotsky Socialist Worker Party held a second Right to Work conference in Manchester. Here is a critical report. Here is a report on Right to Work activity in Edinburgh, Oxford and London.
A strike of over 8,000 British Gas GMB members against ‘macho management’ and attacks on terms on conditions, was called off following positive discussion. The PCS union organised several national strikes of 200,000 government workers in early 2010 in defence of public services and jobs. The New Labour government wanted to cut workers’ redundancy payments in preparation for significant job cuts after the general election.
Here and here are two reports on the 2010 general election campaign, with all three main parties stating they will deal with the economic crisis with harsh cuts to public services, public-sector pay and conditions, and similar methods in the private sector. Here is a critique of how the Tory leader David Cameron was attempted to rebrand himself as a ‘caring Conservative’. The general election resulted in a hung parliament. The Tories won 306 seats, short of the 326 needed for a majority of 1.
Labour and the Lib Dems discussed forming a coalition but talks failed, resulting in the Tories and the Lib Dems formed a coalition government. This was surprising as, during the election campaign the leader of the Lib Dems, Nick Clegg stated that his party were closer to Labour policies than the Tories. Here is a description of the reaction to the new coalition government and the planned public sector cuts.
Candidates for a new party the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) stood in the election but received limited support. The aim of TUSC was:
“to reach the most militant workers, in the trade unions and the unorganised as well, with the arguments for independent working-class political representation. And in this, it achieved some important successes. Twenty-one TUSC candidates were officially endorsed by the executive committee of the most combative industrial trade union in Britain today, the Rail, Maritime and Transport workers’ union (RMT), and a similar number of RMT branches backed and donated to local campaigns. Outside the RMT, support was won for individual candidates from branches of the Communications Workers’ Unions (CWU) and the GMB and UNITE general unions, and the Scottish region of the Fire Brigades Union. This follows – and, indeed, deepens – the process started by the formation of the No2EU-Yes to Democracy coalition, backed by the RMT, which contested last year’s European elections.”
- https://socialistresistance.org/nssn-leaders-need-support-to-urge-socialist-party-to-pull-back/1149 and https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/22870/Turmoil+in+the+National+Shop+Stewards+Network