Sunday, May 02, 2004
United they no longer stand
Posted by David Smith at 08:40 PM
Category: David Smith's other articles

Review of United We Stand, A history of Britain's trade unions by Alastair Reid.

This is not, as Alastair Reid concedes, a good time for trade unions. Membership has stabilised after a 20-year decline but shows no sign of reviving. Unions have become, he writes, “marginal to the nation’s public life”. Fewer than a fifth of private-sector workers, although still the majority of those in the public sector, are members.

Reid, a Cambridge historian who has written extensively on the Labour party and the unions, thinks we could be on the brink of an upswing in union membership and influence. Unions, he argues, follow a 50-year cycle. Their recent decline, the result of deindustrialisation and a cold legislative climate, could be reversed. Increasing numbers of professionals, particularly in the public sector, see advantages in membership. We can debate that. The fact that seven years into a Labour government the unions have made little progress suggests their marginalisation may be permanent. What I would not debate, though, is that this is a very accessible history of the union movement.

Each chapter begins with a personal story. Thus there is the memoir of Francis Place, who recounts how the Breeches Makers Benefit Society came, in 1793, to have £250 in its war chest, which it used to fund a strike for higher pay by the men who made leather breeches. Unfortunately for them, £250 was not enough. The employers persuaded customers to switch to cloth breeches. After three months the strike was called off, without a pay increase.

Other union pioneers fared even worse. John Doherty, an Irish immigrant, played a leading role in an unsuccessful 1818 strike by Manchester spinners and was sentenced to several years’ hard labour in Lancaster prison for his trouble.

Gradually, from the middle of the 19th century, the unions began to gain ground. They expanded in the economic boom from the 1850s to the 1870s, and even more so in the late-Victorian upturn that began in the 1890s. Craft unions, in particular, established a strong collective-bargaining position. But the 1920s and 1930s, with the failed general strike and the depression, marked a serious setback.

The turning point should have been 1945. The Attlee government’s programme of nationalisation and a determination never to turn the clock back to the 1930s could have paved the way for a new era of co-operative trade unionism. Instead, particularly after Labour’s defeat in 1951, there was, writes Reid, “a marked reassertion of trade union autonomy”. Strikes, satirised in the Boulting Brothers’ 1957 comedy I’m All Right Jack, shot up. A long period of Tory rule set the scene for prolonged disputes. The modern version of the British disease was born.

Something had to be done. Labour flirted with action in Barbara Castle’s In Place of Strife. Margaret Thatcher did it on behalf of an electorate that, by 1979, was fed up with the unions. A union comeback is possible. But it would have to be a different kind of union.

From The Sunday Times, May 2 2004