What Future for ‘This Great Movement of Ours’?

by Martin Upchurch

Trade unions in Britain are at a watershed. This month’s public sector strike on November 30th, involves 3 million workers from 27 different unions. It follows the largest ever trade union organised demonstration held in March and the public sector strike of three quarters of a million workers in June. This wave of strikes and protests must be viewed from a wider perspective. The student demonstrations late last year, followed by the Arab Spring and then the Occupy Movement have given  union members confidence to take the plunge and vote to strike. Protest has returned.  In 2010, the number of strikes in Britain were the lowest since records begun, now the masses are taking part.

But do the strikes also mark a major change in the relationship between the unions and the Labour Party? In the post War period trade unions swam with the stream for thirty years. Full employment provided the opportunity for unions to expand their membership, notably in the public sector and among women. When membership peaked in 1979 at nearly 13 million, governments were willing to do business with the unions. Concessions were made to expand the welfare state so long as trade union leaders held back the wage demands of their rank-and-file.

A  social democratic model of trade unionism dominated, whereby unions left politics to the Labour Party and agreed to constrain themselves to the pursuit of economic demands in the workplace. The late Ralph Miliband termed this model ‘Labourism’. The labour movement grew on this model, so much so that the phrase ‘this great movement of ours’ (TIGMOO) entered common parlance among Labour and trade union leaders alike.

Neoliberalism slowly began to change the relationship between union leaders and the Labour Party. Thatcher had already frozen out the unions from her plans, but the return of New Labour in 1997 did not see the return of TIGMOO, at least not in the form it was before. Labour had committed itself to the market, and trade unions were to prove obstacles to Tony Blair’s appeal to middle England. Trade union membership halved. In desperation unions turned first to single union ‘sweetheart’ deals, only to fall out among themselves at the consequences.

New Labour’s ‘partnership’ between employers and unions fell by the wayside, as the reality of corporate power unravelled the deals. Unions have since turned to ‘organising’, training their activists to pursue new avenues for recruitment among non-traditional members. However, union membership continued to decline. What was missing was political clout.

The crisis of social democratic trade unionism was not just a British phenomenon. In France, more militant unions outside the confines of the main confederations have developed. In Germany, regional officials of big unions such as IG Metall and Ver.di  broke off from the social democrats’ SPD to help form the new left wing Die  Linke party. In Greece, the unions linked to PASOK have been outflanked by independent unions focused on workers’ centres in the major towns and cities.

That is why the November 30th strike day in Britain is so crucial for the unions. Building for the strike has revived union membership. The civil service union PCS saw a net increase of 16000 members in the build up to the strike in June, and the teachers’ union, NUT, grew by 6000. So where the unions are promising a fight, workers feel once again that there is a point in joining. Confidence to take on employers is increasing.

Labour loyalists such as Dave Prentis, the general secretary of UNISON, have strained at the leash to make November 30th a success. Herein lies the dilemma. Trade unions increasingly stand apart from Labour as TIGMOO enters a new phase. As well as refusing to support calls for a Robin Hood Tax on the rich and  remaining coy and tentative in support for the Occupy Movement,  the Labour party’s Ed Miliband has warned against strike action.

So, having lost the battle over pensions, trade unions are faced with the prospect of further political isolation and decline. But to win the battle unions may have to go beyond the one day strike and up the ante. Given the tight shackles of austerity budgets, it’s difficult to predict how much more the unions would have to do to make the Government change course.

Greek unions have now been on general strikes fourteen times, in the latest instance for four days. This is what it took the Greek political elite to recognise them as serious in their adverseness to austerity measures. TIGMOO will never be the same again, and a newly radicalised and re-politicised trade union identity is needed to replace it.

Martin Upchurch is Professor of International Employment Relations at Middlesex University, London, and co-author of The Crisis of Social Democratic Trade Unionism in Western Europe (Ashgate, 2010).

Social Europe Journal