This radical history of the trade union movement in Britain runs from 2010 to 2015. Parts 1-5 of this series are summary posts of “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. Part 5 from 2005 to 2010 and this post Part 6 are based on content from the internet.
This post, Part 6 is a briefer overview than Part 5. Again, 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 (Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (rs21), Counterfire, Socialist Worker Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP)) 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 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; the strikes and pay campaigns tags on the Socialist Worker website; Union News website; for rail, the RMT News magazine and the SWP RMT tag; and the National Shop Stewards Network bulletins. Sorry for any strikes and disputes that I missed out, I’m happy to include them if you get in touch.
The Coalition government and austerity 2010 – 2015
Days lost to strike action in this period went from 365,000 in 2010, up to a high of nearly 1.4 million in 2011, down to 249,000 in 2012, climbing to 788,000 in 2014, then dropping back down again to 170,000 in 2015. The chart in this article gives a breakdown of which sectors the strikes took place in between 2008 and 2015. The 1.4 million strike days lost in 2011 was the highest since 1990. You can read details of labour disputes in 2014 and 2015 here.
Trade Union membership continued to decline from 7.3 million in 2010 to 6.9 million in 2015, from a high of 13 million in 1980. UK unemployment rate went from 7.9% in 2010, to 8.1% in 2011, to drop to 5.4% in 2015. The UK employment rate went from 70.4% overall to 73.5% in 2015. For men this was 75% and women 65% in 2010, going to 78% for men and 68% for women in 2015.
The UK government Department for Business produces reports on trade union statistics. The following statistics are from the report for 2010 and another report for 2015. Trade Union density was 26.6% (a percentage of those working) and had fallen by 0.8% compared to 2009. Union density fell to 24.7% in 2015, the lowest union membership level since 1995. In 2010, Union densities fell more in the private sector than the public sector and more for men than women. By 2015, membership levels in both the public and private sectors had slightly increased. Union density was highest in professional occupations (43.7%), with sales jobs having the lowest (12.9%). The report gives other data including the differences around the UK regions; union density in different sectors of the UK economy; trade union presence and collective agreement; and wage comparisons for trade union members and non-members. In 2015: “Older workers account for a larger proportion of union members than younger workers. About 39% of trade union member employees were aged over 50 in 2015, but only 28% of employees are in this age group. The proportion of trade union members aged below 50 has fallen since 1995, whilst the proportion aged above 50 has increased.”
This review by Robert Skidelsky of the book ‘The Slow Death of British Industry: a 60-Year Suicide, 1952-2012’ by Nicholas Comfort gives a good description of the decline of UK industry:
“In the early 1950s, Britain was an industrial giant. Today, it is an industrial pygmy. Manufacturing was industry’s bedrock. In 1952, it produced a third of the national output, employed 40 per cent of the workforce and made up a quarter of world manufacturing exports. Today, manufacturing in this country accounts for just 11 per cent of GDP, employs only 8 per cent of the workforce and sells 2 per cent of the world’s manufacturing exports. The iconic names of industrial Britain are history; in their place are the service economy and supermarkets selling mainly imported goods.”
The article lists the many reasons Comfort gives for this decline at the start of the article. Skidelsky goes on to give two main reasons for the decline. First, the protection the British Empire gave British industry, as it took sometime after the Second World War for Germany and Japan to become competitive. Second, Britain’s over-reliance on financial services for government revenues and the volatile nature of this sector has resulted in British government’s revenues collapsing disproportionately when this sector crashes.
This article from 2010 reports on Britain’s draconian anti-union laws. Here is an analysis of trade union laws that show that the UK’s are the most restrictive in Western Europe.
The world economy was still struggling through this period following the 2008 financial crisis. By late 2010, a trade and currency war with protectionist measures look likely. The Federal Reserve in the US launched another round of qualitative easing to try to increase US growth. By the end of 2011, a new economic recession looked likely, even though there had not been a real recovery from the previous recession. Here is a report from early 2012 on the struggling world economy, and another from mid-2012. Here is an analysis of Paul Krugman’s Keynesian proposal to deal with the global economic crisis. This article describes the surprise stock market surge in early 2013, even though most economies only showed weak growth. Here is a report on the weak global economy from the end of 2014, including the situation in the US, China, and Europe. This article describes the impact that low oil prices were having on the world economy.
This period saw the development of the eurozone Greek debt crisis. In mid-2011 it looked likely that Greece would default on its government debt, most of which was owed to European banks and financial institutions. Greek trade unions responded to the proposed austerity from the EU, with a 48-hour general strike. In July, eurozone leaders proposed an economic package to stabilise the Greek debt crisis. By the end of 2011, the Euro looked at risk. There was also a general strike in Italy over austerity. In early 2012, EU leaders were putting pressure on the Greek government to introduce more austerity on the Greek people. This article gives a summary of the response by trade unions, opposition parties and the far right. An EU bailout in early 2012 avoided Greece defaulting but ensured harsh austerity was implemented in Greece. The new Belgium government introduced austerity. The May 2012 elections in Greece were a political upset and no coalition of parties from the left or right could form a parliamentary majority. New elections were called for June. In June it looked likely that Greece would be exiting the eurozone. The right-wing New Democracy party won the June rerun elections, with the left-wing Syriza party coming second. This article from late 2012, describes a temporary fix of the eurozone by the European Central Bank. The article also describes another general strike in Greece and large demonstrations in Spain and Portugal. Here is a report on another general strike in Greece in early 2013, with the right-wing government responding with repression. Early 2013 in Italy saw the launching of a new party Five Star Movement by a comedian, win the most votes 25%. Huge anti-austerity protests also took place in Portugal in early 2013.
This article from early 2014 gives a summary of the impact of the crisis in Greece since 2010: “Since 2010 Greece has faced the brunt of the eurozone crisis, with living standards slashed in what amounts to a humanitarian crisis. Wage-earners have lost 50% of their purchasing power since 2009. Unemployment is officially 28% and youth unemployment 61.4%. Half of all hospital beds are being closed down. But workers have not accepted this without a fight. There have been 31 general strikes since the start of the crisis and countless sectional strikes and local campaigns that have shaken the capitalist establishment.”
The Spring of 2014 saw a successful anti-fascist conference in Athens, Greece. There was also a huge demonstration organised by the European Trade Union Confederation in Brussels. At the end of 2014, 19 Greek mayors refused a new law to sack thousands of council and public sector workers. In early 2015, the left-wing political party Syriza got a majority of the vote and formed a coalition with the Independent Greeks, a centrist party. Here is an analysis of Syriza and its finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
This period saw an international wave of strikes, protests and the overthrow of dictators in the Middle East. This article from 2014, analyses the anti-austerity strike wave in Western Europe. This article describes the international ‘age of rage’. Here is an article from 2014, on the strike wave in the UK.
Following the Labour Party defeat in 2010, a leadership election took place with four very similar New Labour candidates. Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother David to become Labour Party leader. Some argued this was a swing to the left for the Labour Party, others that Ed Miliband was only marginally to the left of the other candidates. Many see Ed Miliband as ‘soft left‘. Here is an interesting critique of Tony Blair’s autobiography and his conscious work to destroy the Labour Party as a vehicle for working-class struggle.
This article from 2010, describes the planned public sector cuts by the Tory-Lib Dem (Con-Dem) coalition government. Huge cuts were also planned at universities, with thousands of jobs threatened, and plans to increase student fees. Read analyses of the lack of success of the resistance to austerity here and here.
2010 saw the election for the General Secretary of one of Britains biggest unions, Unite. There were four candidates, two on the left Len McCluskey and Jerry Hicks, and two on the right Les Bayliss and Gail Cartmail. Len McCluskey was elected. The PCS union held a consultation “with branches and members on the question of expanding its political campaigning on the basis of ‘standing or supporting’ trade union candidates in elections.”
Here is a critical take on the trade unions and Labour Party by McDonald’s Workers Resistance.
At the end of 2010, the coalition government planned to ‘restructure the police to make it more accountable to the public’ through elected police and crime commissioners and reduce policing costs, which met strong opposition from senior police officers.
There was a report in late 2010 on the levels of inequality in Britain: “released last month by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), How Fair is Britain, shows in fact that Britain is a deeply unfair society, even though it has become more diverse and tolerant in some ways. Aside from entrenched inequality and discrimination, other statistics stand out in the report. One in six English adults and one quarter of Welsh adults are functionally illiterate. Half of English and Welsh adults lack basic maths skills. Up to two million people provide unpaid care, worth £87 billion annually.”
The end of 2010 saw a series of large student demonstrations in central London against the coalitions governments planned spending cuts to further education: “The first major demonstration occurred on 10 November, jointly organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) and the University and College Union (UCU). It involved between 30,000 and 50,000 demonstrators marching through central London, with several hundred branching off to attack and occupy the Conservative Party headquarters. This measure brought condemnation from the establishment and a divide within the student movement over the appropriateness of such tactics. The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC) called for a mass walk-out and demonstration on 24 November, with occupations taking place at campuses throughout the UK. A march in central London was kettled in Whitehall, resulting in violent confrontation with protesters. Further demonstrations were held in central London on 30 November, when police clashed with protesters and kettled them in Trafalgar Square, while other protests took place throughout the country. Another central London protest took place on 9 December, the day that the proposed reforms were passed into law, with protesters clashing with police and being kettled in Parliament Square. The student protests were unsuccessful in their aim of preventing the government’s reforms. The demonstrations had been highly controversial in the UK, being condemned for instances of violence and vandalism by both the establishment and by protestors. The behaviour of the Metropolitan Police in dealing with the protests was also widely criticised for alleged instances of untruthfulness and excessive use of force.”
Here is a report and analysis of the demonstrations by the Socialist Party. The protests were supported by London Underground workers and the RMT union. This article reports on the December vote in Parliament on the increase to student fees and the huge demonstration of 30,000 organised by the London Student Assembly. Here is a report by the Socialist Party and another from Counterfire on the student movement from mid-2011.
Here is an assessment from the start of 2011 of the weak world economic situation and the prospects for further protests and strikes. This article describes the struggling economic situation in Britain in 2011. The Con-Dem coalition government introduced the concept of the ‘big society‘, where charities and community groups will run services that were previously provided by the public sector. As well as the public sector job cuts, these charities and community groups were seeing funding cuts too. The police and schools also saw huge budget cuts. The local and regional election in May 2011, saw the Lib Dem punished for going into coalition with the Tories. The Tories mostly maintained their vote share, which was helped by the campaign against changing the parliamentary election system to ‘Alternative Vote’, by referendum.
This article describes how the savage cutbacks on social care provisions, on top of years of underfunding, were predicted to have devastating impacts on the most vulnerable, and social workers will have to pick up the pieces. Women were hit disproportionately hard by the harsh cuts to the public sector during the economic recession.
This article assesses the union movement in the UK in 2011:
“Trade union density stands at 26.6% of UK employees. This represents a fall of 0.8% on 2009. Overall, 6.5 million people are in unions, a fall of 179,000 on the previous year. General patterns include the fact that full time employees are more likely to be in unions than part time employees, and those in permanent posts are more likely to be unionised than temporary workers. Indeed the rise in temporary employment appears to be one factor influencing the slow decline in union numbers. Also, the very low paid are not well unionised: there is 13.6% union density among those earning less than £250 a week. The average pay of union members is £14 an hour, 16.7% higher than non-union members ( £12 an hour). But the gap between trade unionists and the non-unionised is wider in the public sector (21.1%) than in the private sector (6.7%). The benefits of unions are thus rather more obvious to those in the public sector than in the private sector. Over the last decade union density has fallen by around 3%, but the 0.8% year-on-year decline last year may indicate a quickening of the pace of decline. There have been regional variations during the last 10 years: the North East has seen a decline in union density of 7.4%, the highest of any region, influenced by the disproportionate impact of recession. During that period the only growth sectors for union density have been ‘the professional and admin services and wholesale, retail trade and motor repair sectors’. Union density is highest in what are designated ‘professional occupations’ (43.7%) and lowest in sales occupations (12.9%).”
August 2011, saw the UK riots that started in north London and spread to several cities around the country over four days. Here is a report from the Socialist Party in September and other reports in March 2012 and April 2012. This article looks at the high levels of youth unemployment at the end of 2011.
The TUC organised a demonstration on March 26, 2011, call the March for the Alternatives. It saw the largest demonstration in London since the 2003 anti-war marches, with over 500,000 people taking to the streets. 
On June 30, 750,000 to a million teachers and civil servants took part in coordinated one-day strike action over the government going back on an agreement over pensions from 2007. 
Here is an analysis from September on the public sector pensions struggle from the Socialist Party, describing the government’s strategy of prolonging negotiations in the hope that union members mood for resistance will dissipate. Teachers faced intimidation and were threatened with disciplinary action if they went on strike.
On November 30, an estimated two million public sector workers went on strike over the government attacks on their pensions, with 60% of schools closed and 6,000 hospital operations cancelled, see more details here. This is a report of the strike ballot results from mid-November, so you can see which unions were involved. Here is an article from November on the build-up to the strike. Official strike figures show that of the “1.4 million days lost to strike action in 2011, 997,000 were lost during the Nov 30th strikes”. The Socialist Worker (newspaper of the Trotsky SWP) reported that “the strike was the biggest in Britain for years and was a success. Within days the main union leaders, with the blessing of the TUC, had organised to call off the action and stop the struggle from escalating.” This article on libcom.org also reported on how the trade unions were selling out their members by mostly going along with the government changes to public sector pensions.
Here is an assessment of the public trade unions and the labour movement in May 2011. This article reports on the state of the unions in mid-2011: trust in unions; public support for nationwide strikes; the ongoing decline of union density; young workers, low pay and precarious employment; shop stewards; workplace tensions. Here is a report on (the Socialist Party dominated) National Shop Stewards Network conference. This article describes how an employment tribunal found the public sector union, Unison, guilty of wrongly disciplining four Socialist Party members for issuing a leaflet that defended rank-and-file democracy and criticised the Unison leadership over its democratic practices.
Here is a report on the Tory Chancellor George Osborne 2011 autumn spending review, that committed the Tories and Lib Dems to austerity after the 2015 general election. The details include £15 billion cuts to public spending in 2016/17, which were on top of £83 billion of cuts and £29 billion tax rises by 2015, announced in 2010.
The Autumn of 2011 saw the development of the Occupy movement in cities around the world. The movement opposed social and economic inequality and the lack of democracy. It promoted new forms of social and economic justice and democracy. Most local groups occupied space in the centre of cities using tents. Here is a round-up of the UK Occupy movement.
This article describes how big corporations were accumulating large cash hoards and reporting record profits but there was a complete lack of investment in production. It explains that the corporate surpluses were linked to public sector deficits. Here is a report on the continuing reorganisation of the police to save money. Here is a report on the May 2012 local elections. London held the Olympics in 2012, here is a report during the games on the broken promises around its legacy: affordable housing, decent jobs, increased sports participation. Here is a critical report on the PSC union’s weakness in bowing to right-wing pressure concerning the Olympics. This article assesses the Olympics legacy a year later. Here is an article from the end of 2012 that gives a summary of the global period of instability and unrest at that time.
The public sector pension dispute related to government austerity continued into 2012, read here and here. There was a strike and march of 10,000 teachers and supporters in London on March 28.
This article describes how the Tory government attacked workers ‘right to strike’ by announcing plans to withdraw Working Tax Credits for workers that take strike action. Here and here are reports on the state of the trade unions in Spring 2012.
Here is a critical analysis of the Socialist Party’s ‘front’ the National Shop Stewards Network and its calls for some sort of a general strike at the TUC Congress in September. The TUC Congress voted in favour of a motion on calling a general strike, here is a critical analysis of what that meant. There was an ongoing dispute between the government and HMRC workers over job cuts and office closures; the application of strict sickness absence measures; and the ‘trial’ of outsourcing calls to private sector companies on two sites. Read reports from August here and from October here and here.
The TUC organised a ‘Future That Works’ demonstration in London for October 20 2012, here is an article on the build-up. This report estimates there were 100,000-250,000 people on the march and gives a critical assessment of the labour movement. This article reports on the October 20 marches taking place in London, Glasgow and Belfast, and assesses the situation and what is next for the labour movement.
Here and here are critical analyses of the UK pensions dispute and limitations of trade unions. Also in 2012, the micro and base union Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB) was founded, with the members being made up of low paid migrant workers in London, read more here.
In early 2012, electricians at construction company Balfour Beatty voted to strike and defeated attempts to use anti-union laws to stop the strike over terms and conditions. Here is a report on the UCU union. This article describes and analyses the PCS union rank and file network that operated from 2012-2015. The vehicle manufacturer, Ford, announced the closure of two of its UK production sites, which resulted in the loss of 1,400 jobs in Britain, that moved to Turkey. Here is a related article from the Socialist Party.
This article discusses the dominance of the financial sector in Britain, with an increase in profits and a failing share of the wages going to workers. This is due to a failure of the British state to invest in ‘rebalancing’ the economy away from finance. Here is a review of a book describing the failure of British capitalism and Britain’s economic decline. Here is a report on the failures of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition government’s housing policy. This article describes the ongoing privatisation of the NHS in mid-2013. Here is a report on the number of libraries closed due to austerity. This article describes how the coalition government attack on living standards was causing a build-up of class rage, and the prospects for struggle. This article describes the Tory defeat in parliament over the bombing in Syria.
The coalition government introduced the ‘Bedroom tax‘ in 2013. Those living in public housing, that were deemed to have a ‘spare room’, faced a reduction in housing benefit. Here is a report on how benefit cuts and the bedroom tax resulted in 500,000 people in Britain relying on food banks. Here is a summary of the campaign against the bedroom tax in 2013. Here is a report from 2014 on the success of a mass campaign to defeat the bedroom tax in Scotland. Read more on the Disabled People Against the Cuts website and the Combat the Bedroom Tax website.
Here is a report on Labour leader Ed Miliband’s Labour Party conference speech and the reaction to his proposal to put a price limit on energy bills. Miliband also announced that he would review the Labour Party’s relationship with the unions, to the delight of the right-wing press. Here is a report in the Autumn of 2013 on the reduction in workplace collective bargaining, rights and conditions. This article from a senior officer in the PCS union advocated joint coordinated industrial action between unions. Here is a briefing document analysing the working class in Britain, the balance of class forces, the union bureaucracy and the rank and file. The TUC’s first women General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, took charge at the start of 2013. Two Unison activists started a campaign to make the labour movement safer for women. The People’s Assembly Against Austerity was launched in 2013 to fight the coalition governments austerity against the government austerity measures. Here is a critique of the People’s Assembly.
The NUT Executive Committee narrowly voted against strike action planned for March 2013, with anger many teachers. There were several teacher strikes in the Autumn, here is a report on the October 1 strike. In October 2013, there was nearly a 48-hour strike at Grangemouth oil refinery in Scotland. Unite the Union called the strike off at the last minute. Here and here are some analyses of what happened. After CWU had lost the battle over privatisation, there was due to be a CWU members strike at Royal Mail over pay and conditions. The High Court granted Royal Mail an injunction that stopped the strikes, read more here.
Three unions signed the first voluntary recognition deal between unions and an independent health and social care provider in 2013. GMB, RCN and Unison created the agreement with Four Season Health Care for more than 30,000 staff caring for more than 20,000 residents.
The University of Sussex saw a ‘pop-up’ union form to resist privatisation plans in the Spring, read reports here and here. Here is an analysis of the strike. Here is a report on a Higher Education sector-wide strike in the Autumn of 2013.
The BFAWU or Bakers union launched a campaign in 2013 to tackle the ‘lack of fairness and justice for workers in the UK’s fast-food industry’.
This article from 2014 describes the savage cuts to councils budgets by the coalition government. This article describes the NHS crisis in 2014 and another from 2015. Here is an article on the weak economic situation in Britain in 2014. This report describes how the ‘minimum wage’ is still poverty pay. This article reports on the May 2014 council and EU elections and the success of UKIP. This article describes the changes to the Police Federation, a body to represent police officers. The coalition government introduced new legislation to provide increased protection to those facing domestic violence, at the same time as make large cuts to local services and legal aid, read more here. 2014 saw the Scottish Independence referendum, here is an article on the build-up, with the No vote getting 55.3%, the Yes 44.7%, which was a political upset. Here is some analysis. Here is some analysis of the political situation in Britain in the build-up to the 2015 general election. This article describes the Socialist Party’s trade union party Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) that stood in elections.
2014 saw the deaths of Bob Crow and Tony Benn, a huge loss to the labour movement. Labour Party leader Ed Miliband successfully introduced changes to the link between the Labour Party and the unions – a ‘one member, one vote’ system and ended the automatic affiliation of union members to the party. This article describes the situation in workplaces in 2014.
There were several public sector strikes in 2014 involving NHS workers, firefighters, civil servants, council workers and teachers. Teachers went on strike on March 26 over pay, conditions and pension, read more here and here. The Department of Education (DfE) said only 2,920 of England’s 24,330 schools were closed, with the NUT officials said 60% of schools closed. This article discusses the 2014 NUT General Secretary election. Here is a report on the NUT conference 2015 and the internal situation in NUT
There was a large public sector strike on July 10 involving teachers, firefighters and council workers. There was also a large demonstration in central London. Here is a July 10 strike report. Here is a report on the NUT strike on July 10, with union officials saying half of the schools closed, the DfE said it was 21%.
October 2014 saw several strikes: NHS workers on October 13, local government workers on October 14, and civil service and London Underground workers on October 15. The NUT did not take part. This article describes why civil service workers went on strike. There was a large TUC demonstration on October 18. Here is a summary from November, of the public sector dispute.
On the NHS dispute, this article explains what the workers were striking over. It was the first NHS strike in 32 years. This started in October with midwives striking and working to rule. There was another NHS strike on November 24, involving nine unions and out of 450,000 NHS staff due in work that day, it was estimated that 12.500 joined the four-hour strike. The summer saw marches for the NHS across Britain and grassroots campaigns fighting to stop hospital closures.  A twelve-hour NHS strike was planned in January 2015 but was called off following a new pay offer. Midwives in Northern Ireland went on strike in April 2015 over failure to receive the agreed pay offer.
Here is a report of the damaging deal between CWU and Royal Mail. Workers received a pay increase that was protected for five years but it could be withdrawn if there was a national strike, so is effectively a no-strike deal for five years. London Underground saw strikes over job cuts and ticket office closures in February, and April 2015. A three-day strike was planned for May but was called off following progress in talks between RMT and London Underground.
The micro or base union United Voices of the World (UVW) was formed in 2014. Its members are migrant cleaners and workers in other service or low-wage industries.
This article from the Socialist Party describes the political situation in Britain in early 2015, in the lead up to the general election. Here is an analysis of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the Scottish National Party (SNP). This article describes the ongoing housing crisis in Britain.
Here is a report on union-busting by the coalition government against PCS workers in the civil service. This article reports on the 2015 National Union of Teachers (NUT) conference. Here is a critique of Unite the Union general sectary Len McCluskey. Here is an analysis of the unions and the coalition government from the Socialist Party. The general election of 2015 saw a Tories majority government elected, with a majority of 5 seats. The Lib Dems went from 57 seats to 8, the SNP from 6 seats to 56 and Labour lost 26 seats. Here and here are some analyses and discussion of what is next.
- http://socialismtoday.org/archive/147/editorial.html, http://socialismtoday.org/archive/148/uncut.html, https://libcom.org/library/day-three-parts-nic-beuret, https://libcom.org/library/shift-12, https://www.theguardian.com/society/blog/2011/mar/26/march-for-the-alternative-live-blog-updates?
- https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/12329, https://libcom.org/library/unions-fight-against-austerity-tom-denning, https://libcom.org/blog/fight-our-lives-analysis-uk-pensions-disputes-31102012