The UK New Unionism project
by Peter Hall-Jones and Dr Conor Cradden for www.newunionism.net
What lessons can be learned from the UK’s “ New Unionism” project? What strikes us in talking to people about this question is that they have all come up with an answer, and that none of them are the same. Because this article is being written for a network (www.newunionism.net), which has neither mandates nor policies to offer, it should be regarded as just another contribution to the general noise. You are invited to add your own comments in the table to the right.
what do you think?
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When the New Unionism project was launched in 1997 the stars seemed aligned for a phenomenal transformation in UK industrial relations.
In 1996 Prime Minister Tony Blair had declared:
“We need to build a relationship of trust not just within a firm but within a society… Successful companies invest, treat their employees fairly, value them as a resource not just of production but of creative innovation… it is surely time to assess how we shift the emphasis in corporate ethos - from the company being a mere vehicle for the capital market… towards a vision of the company as a community of partnership in which each employee has a stake, and where a company's responsibilities are more clearly delineated.” (1)
A year later Blair announced that partnership would be central to New Labour’s Fairness at Work policy, which in turn led to the 1999 Employment Relations Act. The government also established a fund (2) to encourage initiatives based around partnership in the workplace.
In the meantime the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC) was promoting partnership, along with organising, as one of the key elements of the New Unionism project (3). John Monks, General Secretary, announced:
“…New unionism came from listening to what our members want. Of course they need us to take on the bad employer - the bullying boss, those who discriminate, the exploiter… But listen carefully and most union members tell you that their employer is not like that. Most employees are not looking for conflict, and they want far more from their job than decent pay and conditions. Our surveys show their top priority is job security. Second employees want a rewarding, worthwhile job with an employer who respects and trusts them with the responsibility to do their job well. Our new unionism is rooted in our ambition to make that a reality... That's why we have developed the new unionism alternative - the partnership agenda.” (4)
The Department of Trade and Industry carried out a large number of case studies, and concluded that partnership had improved competitive performance in every case. (5)
And the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) went on to endorse the TUC’s “Partners for Progress” document, which had been launched at the Congress at which Monks (above) was speaking. (6)
Monks was right in so many ways. The TUC had done its surveys. It had interpreted them carefully, and he was reporting the results accurately. This was what workers wanted. It still is. Subsequent surveys and parallel research in other countries have produced the same or similar results.
Then, to top it all, New Labour adopted the EU directive on information and consultation. It was a move which led Will Hutton to declare:
“British employers will now be under an obligation to consult their workforces not just about redundancies but about every major strategic and financial development of their organisations. British capitalism will never be the same again. Trade unions have been given a new place in the sun, not as the old guardians of working-class interests, but as partners in the successful management of the capitalist workplace. … I don't think many employers' organisations, or many unions for that matter, understand the nature of the change about to hit them.” (7)
That year the CBI reported, in its own survey of 673 companies, that 40 per cent had adopted some form of consultation arrangements. It seemed possible, perhaps even probable, that the UK was headed for some new tripartite social partnership model, similar to those which existed in so many other European countries, albeit one with more emphaisis on building partnership from the bottom up.
And then, all of a sudden, nothing happened.
No, this is far too glib. It is aso unfair on those unions who managed (and are still managing) to secure genuine influence and advantage for their members in a number of key workplace agreements and understandings.
One of the things which did happen was that union membership decline was arrested. Membership numbers went from this:
…to this: (8)
Admittedly, the increase was very moderate: 1.5% over 6 years. But it showed that union decline was not some inevitable given; some inexorable, logical consequence of globalisation, individualisation, and/or new market realities.
But somewhere around 2002 a growing cynicism reached the point of open indignation among trade unionists. Genuine partnership agreements (involving the sharing of influence as well as profits) had proven extremely elusive. And in the meantime rocketing executive pay rates had become an open scandal. As the Guardian reported that year: “Salaries of Britain's highest paid executives have increased by 16.1%, more than four times the rise in average earnings and the eighth year running that the increase has been in double figures.” (9) In fact one company had hired five firms of consultants to advise on the pay of just four executives! (10)
Speaking in 2004, soon after the New Unionism project had been officially wound up, John Monks described how hard it had been to establish partnerships: “because of the 'fat-cattery' and Bourbon-like behaviour of boardrooms… It’s a bit tough arguing for partnership, some people look at me pretty ironically, when they see the behaviour of those greedy clots”. (11)
It had become painfully clear that the government and employers’ interpretations of partnership were fundamantally at odds with the model the TUC had proposed. In fact “the competing interpretations suggest a church so broad that, to some in the congregation, it seems happy to welcome heretics, atheists and apostates.” (12)
The TUC model had established six key priciples:
- First, a joint commitment to success of the enterprise.
- Second, unions and employers recognising each other’s legitimate interests and resolving difference in an atmosphere of trust.
- Third, a commitment to employment security.
- Fourth, a focus on the quality of working life.
- Fifth, transparency and sharing information.
- Sixth, mutual gains for unions and employers, delivering concrete improvements to business performance, terms and conditions, and employee involvement.
The fact that the CBI had declared that 40% of companies had “adopted some form of consultation arrangements” seems rather unimpressive in the light of this. Surely consulation could, or should, have existed anyway? According to the 2004 Workplace Employment Relations Survey, 80% of managers, far from desiring to form partnerships with trade unions, would have preferred to consult directly with employees. (13)
In actual fact, wasn’t the cup more than half empty, rather than being half full?
So what did the employers want? Upchurch et al (14) point to some of the pressures which employers were feeling (and compensating themselves for) at the time:
- There was an extreme volatiltity of investment and corporate ownership within the UK, which made employee relations regimes uncertain and unstable. This made it highly unlikely that a new culture of 'mutual gains' would take shape…
- Foreign-owned companies supplied almost 47 per cent of manufacturing investment in the UK… making the UK economy extremely prone to decisions taken by non-UK owners abroad…
- The UK had experienced a higher rate of mergers, take-overs and strategic alliances than competitors, due in part to Britain’s high exposure to the world economy and the consequent need for restructuring…
- The perceived need to enhance national competitiveness in the world product market led employers to flexibilise employment contracts and increase job precariousness…
And what about the government? Were proponents of the “Third Way” interested in finding a navigable path between union disillusionment and employer concerns? More to the point, had New Labour ever intended to allow anything like the industrial partnership which the TUC was seeking?
“(New Labour) argued that corporate power should be subject to voluntary restraint and moral imperative, rather than statutory regulation. Restraint is voluntary because anything statutory or regulatory might upset the neo-liberal process of establishing global competitive advantage through free trade and competition.” (15)
In short, professionalism, modernisation, lifelong learning, listening and harmony were all to be encouraged. This much the government was happy to say to both sides. But there was to be no question of tampering with the operations of the economic base, where the power resides.
“…Attempts by New Labour to introduce a weak form of workplace participation are aimed at increasing productivity rather than supporting collective employee representation and voice.” (16)
“Partnership projects (are) geared primarily to the goal of competitiveness, but with the emphasis on employee flexibility and work intensification…Trade unions have continued to be kept at a distance from real influence and power.” (17)
Clearly the partnership agenda, if not New Unionism itself, was in deep trouble. Employers, the government and unions were all acting in ways which undermined it.
This had always been on the cards. As far back as 1999 Monks had warned that unions needed to be: "partners, not poodles". Another union leader had warned: "the biggest threat to partnership comes from those who are running around offering sweetheart deals and saying to the employers, 'tell me what you want, boss, and we will call it partnership' (18). Some of the partnership deals which had been struck were feeble, if not outright bogus, and others rapidly became so. This led to an increasing polarisation within the TUC, and somehow partnership and organising became identified as opposing ends of a single spectrum. For many it became an either/or. Partnership vs organising. Conciliation vs militancy. Head office vs the rank’n’file. One can almost hear Dick Gaughan singing in the background: “which side are you on, which side are you on?”.
In 2003 a host of new leaders emerged in unions around the UK, and these proved far more willing than their predecessors to challenge the government. As a couple of industrial academics put it at the time:
“…A more critical stance towards New Labour and workplace partnership would help to recharge New Unionism. Putting the pressure back into pressure group and replacing partnership plus organising with organising and organising and organising would build bridges between the TUC and its affiliated unions...”
Then came the Fire Brigades Union strike, which Monks described as “a seminal dispute... The harsh rhetoric from both sides, and the way other unions have responded to the dispute intuitively in support of it and against a Labour government had all the makings of a first class family row, with all sorts of possible consequences about relationships between a Labour government and the TUC and unionism generally."
As we have seen, 2003 was the turning point. New Unionism continues to evolve in the UK (19), but with a greatly reduced formal emphasis on partnership. The TUC’s Partnership Institute, set up in 2001, was re-constituted, and became a standalone organisation. It still does a lot of fine work, but is no longer run by the TUC. (20)
What we see seem to be seeing now, three years later, is a fascinating pragmatism. Of course there are well known success stories, such as USDAW’s work with TESCO, and Amicus with Barclay’s Bank (21), and it tends to be these unions which are growing. But others unions are pursuing the same goal by less formal paths. In fact a series of partnership case studies published in 2004 suggests that: “The benefits (of partnership) come primarily from the informal consultative processes and levels of trust that are engendered.” (22) (emphasis added)
Other unions have rejected the approach outright. But the point is that the argument has become one of contending practice, rather than theory. Why has the debate died away? Given New Labour’s position, unions know that partnership will only ever be built at enterprise level. It is a matter of getting on with the job, and seeing what works. As Thomas Paine said: “Time makes more converts than reason”.
So what can we learn from this?
First and foremost, how on earth did partnership and organising come to be cast as opposites? As TUC National Organiser Paul Nowak said recently: “Partnership without strong effective unions is meaningless, while organising is not an end in itself.”
The primary international advocates of “the organizing model” are the SEIU in the United States. They have developed an immensely successful partnership approach which, in tandem with their laser focus on organising, has led to them becoming the largest and fastest growing union in North America.
As Monks had said at the beginning, it was workers’ desire for real engagement at workplace level which had sparked off the New Unionism project. And academic advisor to the project Prof Edmund Heery said: “Partnership is built from below and thus can institutionalise the collective power of workers, rather than being an alternative to that power.” (23)
Partnership and organising are not opposites; it almost seems as if people reframed the debate in terms of their own disillusionment. Strictly speaking, the two (as defined by the TUC) are not even alternatives. As was generally agreed after the organising versus servicing debate of the decade before, we are not dealing with an either/or situation; both are necessary. The trick is to get the combination right. In fact, when it comes to getting down to business, surely the two should inform and change each other?
As usual, it pays to pause and ask: “what about the workers?”. How do they view this? Surprisingly, there is little research on what makes trade unions effective in the eyes of employees. But as Bryson found, in analysing this question:
“Fifty-eight per cent of employees in unionised workplaces think working with management to improve quality or productivity is a ‘very important’ issue for the union at their workplace, with a further 33% saying it is ‘quite important’. But ratings of unions’ ability to work with managers to this end are poor: only 9% rate unions as ‘excellent’ and 35% rate them as ‘good’.” (24)
This suggests that the mere process of being seen to apply a partnership approach will increase workers’ satisfaction with their union. This may be at least part of the explanation why union membership started falling again when the volume knob was turned down on the partnership approach.
As we have seen with the SEIU, organising and partnership, when used in creative combination, can produce tremendous results, both in terms of membership benefits and union growth. Another example is the New Zealand Public Service Association, which negotiated a large number of collective agreements containing “partnership premiums”: employer recognition in one form or another (usually financial) that union members who participate in workplace partnership are adding value to the development of the organisation and the quality of its services. Workers who are not union members do not receive these premiums. The union is now the biggest in the country, and membership has grown by almost 50% since the partnership strategy was introduced. (25)
The story of New Unionism is far from over in the UK. It now seems clear that an organising agenda, on its own, will not rebuild the movement. But the effect of informal partnership approaches is yet to be understood. Clearly one must look beyond collective agreements to evaluate this. As TUC’s Nowak said recently:
”I've seen a lot of partnership agreements which are virtually indistinguishable from the standard sort of agreement that any employer and union would sign. Likewise I've seen other agreements which don't mention the word 'partnership' but which go beyond the normal collective bargaining framework... what's clear is that their merits or otherwise have little to do with how they are labelled.” (26)
Perhaps this suggests another lesson we can take from the experience of the UK New Unionism project. It seems that partnership, like organising, should be regarded as a way of working, rather than a formal end point. More than anything else, workers want their voices to be heard (27). The goal, therefore, is influence. Partnership organising (ie the two taken together) is merely a strategy for achieving this.
This need not imply taking a conciliatory approach. “Partnership” implies (or it should!) a relationship based on equality. We are talking about industrial democracy.
Partnership is something to be struggled for, using an organising approach which suits.
We recently found the poster to the right in an online archive of artworks from the Wobblies (IWW) – America’s anarcho-federalists in the early 1900s (28). Would there have been the same division over “partnership” if the term “industrial democracy” had been used instead? We suspect so, although the words and the faces would have been different. In fact the agenda may well have been too radical.
But what about the workers?
As Monks had said in launching the project: “New unionism came from listening to what our members want”. Subsequent surveys have not altered the findings. The challenge is not to haggle over terms, it is to deliver.
We suggest that the whole issue of partnership needs to be looked at again, with less emphasis on formal agreements as an end in themselves, and no assumptions at all of government support. The proofs of what this can achieve for unionism are starting to emerge, both in the UK and in other countries: creative organising/partnership combinations can rejuvenate unionism in the workplace. If the SEIU can do it under Bush, then UK unions can certainly do it under Blair, Brown or Campbell!
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License
Tony Blair, Singapore speech, January 7 1996, available here
In fact the DTI funded 249 workplace projects, over 20 strategic projects and committed over £12.5 million under the Fund up to 31st March 2004. See here
In actual fact the TUC's New Unionism Task group, set up in 1996, had not actually specified partnership in its four key objectives. These were:
- To promote organising as the top priority and therefore shift the union movement towards an organising culture
- To increase the level of investment of union resources into recruitment and organising, strengthen lay organisation dedicated and trained organisers
- To help unions strengthen their existing bases and break into new jobs and industries and win recognition rights
- To sharpen our appeal to new workers especially young, women, workers of differing ethnicities and those at the roughest end of the labour market.
This focus on organising resulted in UK unions signing some 2,500 new agreements between 1995 and 2005.
John Monks, speaking at the “Partners for Progress: New Unionism in the Workplace” conference, May 21 1999, available here
See Partnership at Work, Department of Trade and Industry, by J Knell, 1999
The document concerned is available here The New Unionism network’s online library has a selection of related documents here
To be fair, Hutton also had some serious warnings and reservations to add. See here
The reason why the graphs are separated is that the data sources and measurement criteria (available from the ILO Bureau of Statistics, see http://www.ilo.org/public/english/bureau/stat/info/dbases.htm) were changed over this period. Internally, the figures are consistent. However for methodological reasons the two graphs should not be conjoined.
From the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,767838,00.html.
From the New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.co.uk/200303310020
From the Guardian, May 19th 2003
This quote comes from IPA-Involve. It can be found, along with a closer look at this problem of conflicting definitions, at http://www.ipa-involve.com/60/61/64/71/index.php
From Inside the Workplace: Findings for the 2004 Workplace Relations Survey, by Barbara Kersley, Carmen Alpin, John Forth, Alex Bryson, Helen Bewley, Jill Dix, Sarah Oxenbridge, Inside the Workplace: Findings for the 2004 Workplace Relations Survey, Routledge, 2006, pp50-51
From Partnership at work, the Third Way, and Democracy, a paper presented to the Policy and Politics Conference, Bristol, July 2003, by Martin Upchurch, Andy Danford, Paul Stewart, Stephanie Tailby, Mike Richardson, Employment Studies Research Unit, University of the West of England. See here
Prof Edmund Heery gives a useful list in his analysis for the Industrial Relations Journal (Issue 33, 2002) Partnership versus Organising: Alternatives for British Trade Unionism.
From Achieving a new equilibrium? The stability of cooperative employer–union relationships, by Sarah Oxenbridge and William Brown.. Industrial Relations Journal, September 2004.
Cited in The Dilemma of Social Partnership and Union Organisation, by Peter Fairbrother and Paul Stewart, Chapter 8 of Trade Unions in Renewal, Routledge Press 2003
From Working with Dinosaurs? Union Effectiveness in Delivering for Employees, by Alex Bryson, 2003. See here
Comment cited from a contribution by Nowak to a Union Ideas Network forum discussion, December 2006.
This was the key finding of “What Workers Want” by Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers – based on the most extensive survey of US workers in 20 years - Cornell University Press 1999. I suggest that the same conclusion might be drawn from UK studies, although nobody to my knowledge has explicitly done so.
They still exist! See http://www.iww.org/