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July 06, 2013


Tim Almond

The biggest change is mobility. If you didn't like your job 100 years ago, you had to change your job. Today, you look around, spot somewhere better and go and work for them instead.

It's why across the whole of Europe, union membership has been declining for decades. We got cars, we became empowered to make the individual choice.


The idea that labour is more mobile now than a hundred years ago (and thanks largely to the car) is nonsense on stilts, which even the most superficial reading of history (or just asking some handy old people) should disabuse you of.

The decline in union membership is largely structural, namely the shift from manufacturing and skilled manual trades (where leverage was possible) to increasingly deskilled and casualised services. "Individual choice" is just ideological claptrap intended to sell the erosion of economic clout as a matter of lifestyle.


How can a union of 3 million members be a "little platoon"?

How on earth can bosses of such organisations not suffer from the very same problems of hierarchy as the capitalist bosses?

Why is political organisation by labour sector preferable to that by direct national party affiliation?

Have we considered that the huge rise in non-unionized workers might be the very reason for hostility to unions, who act only in the interest of their (relatively privileged) members?

Finally: tube drivers.

Tim Almond


Seriously, you think we're no more mobile than we were 100 years ago. You could get to Paris in 3 hours 100 years ago, could you?

Sam Sonne

I can't speak for others, but I dislike unions because they are a rent-seeking entity. The major thesis of, for example, Mancur Olson's book 'The Rise and Decline of Nations' is that mature societies stagnate because rent-seeking groups seek legislation and restrictions on competition and innovation. Unions are such groups, just as large corporations are.


@Tim Almond, you've shifted your argument from labour mobility to the practicalities of a day trip. That's like comparing Norman Tebbit's dad's bike with that of Bradley Wiggins.


There appears to be a consensus emerging that the trouble with unions (and thus the cause of their unpopularity) is that they are self-interested. But this is a feature, not a bug. Unions are part of society's counter-movement (or "double movement", per Karl Polanyi) to defend itself against the chaos of the free market.

They are thus essentially conservative institutions where the fundamental tension is over whether to pursue narrowly sectional goals (the caricature of the RMT) or pursue wider social goals (the caricature of the Unite "conspiracy"). Whichever way they jump, they are damned.


The big problem for unions is that they haven't changed tactics to match changing times. I'd suggest a number of tactics, such as:

1) The CalPERS Model: The California state employees pension fund uses its large ownership stake in various companies to push for change. In today's society, the workers can indeed own the means of production- by buying a controlling share of the company's stock. This has the benefit of both inducing cooperation between labor and management, but also gives the workers the means of reining in bloated executive salaries.

2) Greenmail: Strikes don't scare management - threats of hostile takeovers scare management. The strike fund could be put to better use by threatening hostile takeovers of union-crushing firms.

Tim Almond


You said we were less mobile.

But... OK. How many people living in Cirencester went to work in Swindon in Brunel's time?


@Tim Almond, I didn't say "we were less mobile". I said that you were mistaken to believe that "labour is more mobile now than a hundred years ago". Not the same thing at all.

Your Brunel point is ironic evidence of labour mobility back in the day. Many of the navvies who built the GWR, like the canals before it, were itinerant Irish labourers, not locals from Wiltshire.

If you're interested, Ultan Cowley's "The Men Who Built Britain" is a good survey of the mobile Irish labour of the 19th and 20th centuries.

kolyn phlabyn

speaking from an Irish perspective i agree with many of your points about why unions are seen as an obstacle to recovery and why political parties seek to distance themselves from them.

I think your suggestion that they are perceived as sectional is in fact correct.

Unions could be the central spoke in a much greater resistance to austerity if they chose to. They have the organisation skills, the ability to mediate a coherent alternative and the power to make an impact. But (from an Irish perspective) the unions have capitulated to cuts as long as they insulated their members from the worst of it.

I guess that is their function but unless unions broaden their shield to include all of society, particularly the weakest as most in need of union protection then they cant be surprised that popular sentiment regards them as merely a sectional bulwark that leaves the majority to struggle alone


Along the lines of point 4, their unpopularity may also stem from a kind of political despair. Unions are, in theory, justice-seeking and justice-preserving groups. But perhaps the idea of justice gives everyone the heebie jeebies, because it's complicated and conflictual. We'd rather take our (apolitical) antidepressants - royal babies and Usain Bolts - than confront political reality. The belief in managers (the longing for 'strong leadership' e.g. Maggie nostalgia)is a belief that life is easy - that it is constituted by problems to be solved and obstacles to be overcome - rather than an ongoing and self-perpetuating process of conversation, negotiation and improvisation. The unpopularity of unions may betray a dearth of political energy, a fear of belief and a phobia of frustration. In other words, a hatred of democracy.


Ultimately this for or against unions debate is a bit sterile. The debate is too narrow and anachronistic. They have practically no influence outside of the public sector which gets smaller with every new government. As stated, individualism ala Thatcher is still the dish of the day and ultimately unions are no more than a palliative for the excesses of capital even if they work perfectly well for the collective,as well as their own member's interests.
So it's back to the Overton window for a solution. Unless we move the window so that we can call in to question the merits of our capitalist system as opposed to one where workers in large firms were owner managers we are stuck with stale debates as to whether we can revive unions by diktat [removing anti union legislation etc]or whether they are redundant in our [not so]brave new world of knowledge based services, service industries and sub contracted labour.


Some of the comments above seem reasonable about the idea that unions are exploitative sectional interests, and indeed in the 1980s they were; some of them were more guilds of privilege than worker organizations.

But they were popular then even as guilds of privilege because many people before Thatcher's social engineering thought their own interests were those of workers.

The main reason currently unions are unpopular is that many voters think that unions are effective at raising salaries and conditions for workers, and most voters want lower salaries and worse conditions of work for everybody else.

Because most voters are heavily vested in property, and are also vested in jobs that they think are mostly safe and good enough already "F*ck everybody else! I got mine" is the law of the land.

Taking out the usual statistics about median voters:

«In 2001, the average price of a house was £121,769 and the average salary was £16,557, according to the National Housing Federation. A decade on, the typical price of a property is 94% higher at £236,518, while average wages are up 29% to £21,330»

This means that in those 10 years landladies of average UK 2 up 2 down terrace houses have enjoyed (usually tax-free) capital gains of around £12,000 per year, nearly doubling their £14,000 after-tax average earnings.

How could unions have delivered so much tax-free and effort-free raises to their members?

No way, but Thatcher did, by selling at way below market prices public assets to private interests, and forbidding the building of new public housing that might compete with the speculative property of the newly converted tory voters, plus deregulating finance to provide asset-price boosting mountains of credit.

As a result propertied older (mostly female, thus more prone to swing voting) voters look at their wealth and think that their interests are those of the rentier class, including the City, where good nice banks provide the vast bubble of credit that both drives up the price of the assets and allows them to spend those increases without selling the assets:

«Under the two Prime Ministers that preceded her, James Callaghan and Ted Heath, home equity withdrawal as a percentage of GDP growth was around 36% for both. Under Thatcher, this exploded to over £250bn across her premiership – a staggering 104% of GDP growth. [ ... ] Withdrawals under Blair’s leadership totalled around £365bn,
that’s a full 103% of GDP growth over the same period,»

Given those numbers who needs the unions when rentier speculation gives a near-doubling of after-tax income? Tony Blair created New Labour when he realized that most voters just wanted lower wages for everybody else and higher asset prices for themselves.

The Thought Gang

Union PR is terrible. They only pop up in mainstream media coverage when they're complaining about something, and in most instances they are complaining that not enough taxpayer money is been being spent on their members. Their beatings about pensions are particularly grating.

Whilst the Unions of today appear to be giant organisations with overpaid and unaccountable leaders and all the bloated structures of any comparable corporate entity... one presumes that at 'shop floor' level they are still doing good things to help members, at individual and collective level, in a constructive manner. They're not getting this 'out there'.

The upshot is that private sector workers don't join Unions, and don't really understand what Unions are supposed to do. They are just seen as pressure groups for public sector workers.. who already (are perceived to) have it pretty good.

How much is down to media presentation? How much is down to Unions drifting too far away from their reasons d'être? I don't know.. but whilst I'm entirely in favour of a healthy Union movement.. every direct experience I've had of a modern Union has been negative.


The other possibility is that New Labour are slow to change their ways, maybe they think unions are far less popular than they actually are. Maybe New Labour need to re-adjust? Maybe union bashing is the relic, the dinosaur, out of step with how modernity works?

But the right wing carry on bashing regardless.


Of course, there other problem with unions is that most are seen to be left wing in composition and policy. Further, many see themselves as political organisations.

Given that most people didn't vote Labour even when it won elections. And given that many unions are further to the left than Labour. And given that political party membership is declining... surely the political nature of unions is a massive turn-off to those who either don't share their politics or are not that interested in politics at all?

I think unions would be more successful if they actually concentrated less on public sphere activities/campaigning, and instead got their heads down and worked to make employers more successful and help their members share in that success.

I think there's massive unmet demand for apolitical unions who don't want you to march and don't make you feel bad for voting the way you want.

I cannot think of a single occasion in my lifetime (last 38 years) when a strike actually succeeded in getting workers what they wanted without the company suffering later through layoffs, closures, insolvency or being acquired.


Staberinde : "[You] cannot think of a single occasion ... when a strike actually succeeded in getting workers what they wanted without the company suffering later through layoffs, closures or being acquired."

I reckon the annual tube drivers' strike (or threats thereof) have been pretty successful for the drivers. (yes, we'll have automated trains one day, but that will happen without strikes - probably quicker). And what is the problem for the employees if their employer is acquired?

Contrast those "responsible" German unions who agreed to keep wages down. Result, low wages for Mercedes workers, Mercedes sell cars to Greeks, Mercedes bosses/shareholders put their money in bank, bank buys Greek bonds, bank/Greece needs bailing out by German taxpayers, including our low paid Merc factory worker with his "responsible" union.

Igor Belanov

Staberinde's argument does have a rather glaring error in it I feel. What possible interest is there for workers to join a union that stops campaigning and threatening to use any tactics, and turns itself into a cheerleader for their employer? There is no demand at all "for apolitical unions who don't want you to march and don't make you feel bad for voting the way you want" because they'd be completely useless and your union subs would be money down the drain.

gastro george

It is worth noting that, for example, the Japanese car factories seem to have few problems with the unions.

Herbie Destroys the Environment

"Of course, there other problem with unions is that most are seen to be left wing in composition and policy."

It is good that fighting in the interests of working people is once again seen as left wing. Maybe people will stop believing the bollocks that the anti Union gutter media is on the masses side!

"Further, many see themselves as political organisations."

It is good to see that fighting for health and safety at work, commissioning research into industrial diseases and it's impact on individuals etc is once again seen as political.

"Given that most people didn't vote Labour even when it won elections."

Most people didn't vote Tory or the Lib Dems either. Maybe unions should model themselves on the Mickey Mouse club.

"I think unions would be more successful if they actually concentrated less on public sphere activities/campaigning, and instead got their heads down and worked to make employers more successful and help their members share in that success."

It has been argued that strong union membership, such as is the case in Sweden, Norway actually make the economy stronger and therefore help the employers. It should also be noted that these nations score very highly on the UN well being index. So the least we can say is that unions do not have a negative impact on the economy. But I agree that unions need to focus the battle on the actual workplace, rather than making it better for the employer, why not promote workers getting rid of the sponging owners and running the businesses themselves? Surely this would be to the ultimate benefit of workers.

"I think there's massive unmet demand for apolitical unions who don't want you to march and don't make you feel bad for voting the way you want."

Yes, everyone I speak to says as much, you are so right and wise and I bow to your powers of observation.
We could call them "I can't believe it's not a Trade Union"

"I cannot think of a single occasion in my lifetime (last 38 years) when a strike actually succeeded in getting workers what they wanted without the company suffering later through layoffs, closures, insolvency or being acquired."

If you look at the insolvency stats, it is noticeable that they bear no correlation to Trade Union membership of strike activity. Even the employers business journals don't put insolvency down to Trade Union activity. This really is a cretinous thing to say.

Anyway, for those who can read and understand simple ideas (which rules out Staberinde) this may be useful:



I think the point of Staberinde's post may have been slightly missed.

To take an example: I pay (substantial) union dues to Unite each month because my (third sector) employer's union is affiliated with Unite. As far as I can see Unite spend all their time (and my money) paying their bosses large sums of money, campaigning against 'austerity' writ large, and cheerleading for the Labour party. What I want my union to be doing is collective bargaining on behalf of the employees of my organisation and representing me if management tries to screw me over*.

In other words: I dislike the unions we have as opposed to the idea of unions.

As for the idea that Unite are necessarily representing workers with their campaign activity - I don't think that's true. I think they're too big, which means that on many occasions their campaign activities on behalf of one part of their membership will actually conflict with the interests of another part of their membership.


Forgot what was meant to come after the asterisk on the post above...

*I realise this is a gross simplification of union activities: I'm trying to present how a union looks to an outsider rather than the actual details of how unions work.

ezra abrams

meanwhile, back in the real world (US)
In New York City, on construction jobs, there exists a job called "the master foreman"
The MF gets paid not when he is working, but *whenever* *anyone* is working at the job site.
The MF takes a 2 week vacation in the carribean, he gets paid the whole time, if anyone is working back in NYC

who are the natural allies of unions? people like me - pro choice atheist treehuggers who really want cars to have better gas mileage.
And union guys spit on me, and vote for Nixon and Reagan.
well, what goes around comes around: F*** the union guys, I'll buy a Toyota - has the UAW ever, in its entire history, apologied for the crappy cars made by detroit because of the in ept management ?
The only differnence, far as i can tell, between greedy corrupt CEOs and Union Bosses is that the bosses have a smaller pot of money to steal from.
I could go on a long time, and I'm a union supporter


I was loosely involved in the New Unionism of the '90s. I still have a badge, which I designed, which says Unions - the people who brought you the weekend. Since then unions have been taken over by SWP types who bang on about cultural boycotts and shit.

Whenever I hear the Tory definition of fairness as 'hard working low paid families not earning less than those on benefits' I wonder why the answer isn't higher wages rather than cuts to benefits.

Basically, I agree that unions could be useful, constructive, good for members and for workers generally by improving conditions and good for Britain. But I don't see much of that at the moment.
Could be their lousy PR, I don't know.

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I was a union member for a short while in a non union company and their advice helped me .I can't say a lot about how unions are run but I am dissapointed to see leaders have large salaries but I feel unions are necessary.Politicalcampaigning,representing their members and standing up for the poor by protecting services are surely what unions should do.
Unions may have some PR issues but they are up against the formidable Tory run media and newspapers.Maggie changed the law so the unions are powerless as they can lose all their money. I can't believe people aren't coming together to fight this nasty government and the misery their bringing to people in Britain.

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