The power of the Unions is not what it was 50 years ago. How did that happen?
Well, a number of factors played a part. Mostly because the Unions screwed-up. Also though because Conservative governments targeted them and rightly or wrongly introduced legislation to curb their power.
The Unite Union is currently in the national news (for the wrong reasons) – apparently it has been trying to control who gets selected for a safe Labour seat in Falkirk Scotland, (but we will have to await the result of Police into claims of fraud, and other enquiries before the facts become plain).
This is a Union that has major influence in what happens in the Labour Party – it provides a massive amount of funding (and played a major part apparently in the selection of the Labour leader Ed Miliband). Its own leader Len McCluskey General Secretary, has fallen out with Miliband because of the spat – time will tell who wins (the main issue is who is the powerhouse in the Labour Party – don’t forget the Unions formed the Labour Party at the turn of the 20th Century, and continue to provide a significant amount of funding and support). Unions play an important part in protecting the interests of workers – companies will get away with anything they can (they have history!). People are wary of joining unions nowadays because of their history of militancy and in fear of being discriminated against by their employers.
Miliband wants to change the relationship with the unions – he is wound-up by the constant harassment from Tory PM David Cameron that he is in the hands of the unions. But this is a dangerous game – he could end up screwing his beloved Party, losing emotional support, not least to say immense funding. He is predicted to be stopping the unions’ automatic political levy (members’6 pence per week) being paid to the Labour Party (something he has always fought against in the past) – this is madness. If it was tied-in to the Conservatives making quid pro quo changes to their funding arrangements from wealthy backers, that would be a different matter. Things are already not good with funding through the unions – because their membership has dropped by half these days (and many of them don’t vote Labour)!
McCluskey is a left winger and wants to move the Labour Party to the left. Miliband wants to remain left of Centre (where taken by Tony Blair), because that gives him the best chance of victory at the next General Election in 2015. The major causality so far has been Tom Watson a high profile Shadow Cabinet member 9who seems lately to have lost it), and so called Labour Campaign Coordinator – whatever that means (he was the one who brought Rupert Murdoch and News International to book over phone hacking). He is a close mate of McCluskey and stands accused of being deeply implicated in the Falkirk stitch-up and the planned selection of his friend as Labour candidate. Watson had to go.
The thing that went wrong for the Unions was the abuse of power. This abuse forced the politicians to step in and curb their power. They used to strike at a moment’s notice on some minor pretext – causing mayhem for the Country and our industries and the economy.
The Print unions brought the newspaper industry to its knees with ‘Mickey Mouse’ fake employees, labour intensive working, bad industrial relations, closed shop, out of date practices (including ‘hot metal’), strikes, and the constant refusal to allow the businesses to modernise, for example with computer technology – it was defeated by closures in Fleet Street, the originating home of the national newspapers, and nearly all national newspapers had debunked by 1988.
The Wapping dispute in 1986 was another nail in the coffin of the Trade Union Movement. Rupert Murdoch’s News International had secretly built a brand new print plant there, to print their newspapers, using modern technology, reduced labour, and dramatic reduction of production times. Some 6thousand workers went on strike as their employers could not agree transfer arrangements. These 6thousand employees, who were on strike, were sacked. With some subterfuge Murdoch had led the print unions to believe that the innovative plant was to print a NEW London evening paper – but in fact he transferred his main titles there (News of the World, Sun, Sunday Times, Times)! Murdoch had been planning the move over many months and covered all the bases; he was ready for a long dispute; he employed new staff; staff were bussed -in in modified vehicles; he thwarted the plan for the rail unions to refuse to distribute the plant’s newspapers by using road transport as the alternative; a massive police (with operation heavily criticised methods) prevented distribution lorries from being interfered with by strikers. The Tory government full backed the employers: the unions and leading Labour figures did not.
The print unions organised major demonstrations (not always peaceful) and picketed the new site to try to stop people entering it. It was all to no avail, and the plant operated successfully throughout the year’s strike. The print unions also failed to get the general public to boycott the Wapping titles – people were disgusted by the years of known abuse of power by the print unions. The strike finally collapsed because the strikers were broke and broken.
There was a different but shocking two year strike (1976 – 8) involving immigrant workers at Grunwick in North London, concerning Union recognition, with mass-pickets, extreme violence, and intimidation that sickened the public. It was a firm processing photos, with brand names Bonusprint, Doubleprint, Tripleprint. It was a dispute that significantly weakened the trade union movement, and was one catalyst that brought about the Conservatives’ drive to curb union power in the 1980s.
The watershed however was the UK National Miners’ Strike in 1984-5 – it was a major industrial action. The government under Tory PM Margaret Thatcher decided to take on the Unions – they built up coal stocks massively (having learnt the lesson of the previous miners’ 1974 strike, which brought down the Tory Heath government, and provoked the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) into strike action by announcing the closure of 20 pits and loss of 20thousand jobs – they knew this would provoke matters (a strike had been threatened in 1981 against such pit closures). The mines had been nationalised in 1947 by Labour’s PM Clement Attlee.
Arthur Scargill was the NUM leader and that idiot was too thick to understand what a powerful position the government was actually in (and he already knew the Conservative had plans to defeat a major strike in a nationalised industry!). At the start he had general support in the country – until he continually refused point blank to let the miners have a national ballot about the strike (it is thought that he feared he would lose). The miners had not really fully supported strike action at the outset. The public mood turned against Scargill. Also the government disgracefully employed the police to intimidate and oppress the striking miners with significant force and violence (there were bloody police attacks on miners – Orgreave Coking Plant Rotherham and Maltby South Yorkshire were examples of bloody battles). The Courts found that the NUM ought to have held a ballot – so fines were dished out (and despite trying to hide their funds abroad the NUM got done).
The result of a year long strike was the destitution of the strikers, the destruction of families and mining communities – and subsequently the total loss of the coal mining industry in the UK altogether (massive shut down and closure of pits throughout the land)). Scargill carries the prime responsibility for this disaster, but he has never been called to account! The strike also caused significant long term damage to other coal reliant industries (engineering, electricity, railways, steel which did not support the strike). The inevitable and eventual failure of the strike finished the NUM, which had been one of the strongest and most powerful unions in the land. It further seriously damaged the Trade Union movement – although the Trade Union Congress (TUC) had NOT supported the strike and wanted a national ballot.
The UK Automotive Industry had a long history of strikes, disruption, plant closures and aggressive militant unionism. In the 1950s UK was only second to the United States in world manufacture and the largest exporter – the unions soon put a stop to that!
The mayhem carried on, for years, and for example at the government owned BL Longbridge plant (Birmingham) union convener Derek Robinson (referred to widely in the papers as “Red Robbo”) in the 1970s became infamous, and synonymous with the strikes which crippled production at that plant (e.g. in 1978 and 1979 he orchestrated 523 disputes (it was Britain’s largest car factory at the time). He was then of course subject to ardent attacks by the media, so was finally sacked!
You won’t be surprised to hear that the bosses also played a part – there was utterly weak management. There was also their disgraceful behaviour – the employers used to provoke the unions into striking (easily done those days); they did this to allow them to close the factory for a month or so, at times of bad or poor sales (massive costs could be saved (at the expense of the workforce and their families).
In a few decades we had fallen behind and were only just in the top dozen. Then came the sell off to foreigners of our famous brands, so since the 1980s we have disposed of Austin, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, MG, Mini, Riley, Rolls Royce, Rover, Triumph,
The big five manufacturers in the mid 50s were BMC, Ford, Rootes, Standard-Triumph and Vauxhall producing ninety percent of our cars – however our UK manufacturing costs were higher than our competitors, so we lost out! |In 1960 British Leyland was making commercial vehicles and bought Standard Triumph (who were about bankrupt by then!) and later on Rover. Rootes was lost to Chrysler. Leyland subsequently merged with BMH. In the late 60s British car building continued to be blighted by labour disputes, quality issues, and inefficiency – so there were other changes and mergers. BL was nationalised in the mid 70s as huge investment was required for mechanisation to get productivity up.
In modern times things have changed. In 1986 we had a major breakthrough when Japan’s Nissan opened a new plant in Sunderland (the first such investment in Europe). This was followed by Japanese Toyota (Derby) in 1992, followed in 1986 by France’s Peugeot plant in Ryton. (Honda though had started collaboration with BL/Rover in 1979).
There has been a lot of financial investment (car building is an expensive high tec industry). Now there is responsible unionism, and the skilled workforce perform magnificently, and competes with anywhere else in the world. Quality is second to none. Turnover in passenger and commercial vehicles exceeds £50billion, with half of that as exports, employing some quarter of a million people in manufacturing and supporting industries. UK is also a major manufacturer of engines (over 3million).
Things can look up when we have good unionists at work!