Unions in Britain: Merely on the Margins or on the Cusp of a Comeback?**

Article excerpt

This paper examines the past, present and future trajectory of unions and the union movement in Britain to analyse whether collectively they remain on the margins of influence in the economy and society or whether, given and because of the crisis of neoliberalism, they may be on the cusp of a comeback. Diagnosis and prognosis are sobering such that a possibility rather than probability of a comeback is discussed. This task is carried out by specifying the dimensions and criteria for renewal and revitalisation across a range of indicators.

Key words: labor-management relations, trade unions, collective bargaining, Great Britain QEL: J50, J51)

Introduction

The (uncontested) election of Frances O'Grady to become the first ever female general secretary of the Trade Unions Congress (TUC) in its 144 year history presents an opportune moment to assess whether unions - and the wider union movement more generally - in Britain are continuing their position as being on the margins of the economy and society or, alternatively, whether they could be on the cusp of a something of a comeback in terms of their bargaining influence and political prowess. According to a number of informed commentators (e.g., Cochrane, 2012; Roberts, 2012), the potential for O'Grady to facilitate a comeback - defined as renewal and revitalisation across and throughout the unions in terms of bargaining influence, political prowess and organisational strength - is not just because O'Grady - as a woman - is now reflective of the dominant group in union membership and the workforce, namely, women. It is also because she has gained experience outside the TUC as a campaigning union officer, has a more distinct orientation upon the TUC being the head of the union movement constituted as a social movement and is more prepared to engage with social forces outside of the union movement in order to build alliances in civil society. In short, both her skills and perspectives as TUC leader are viewed as making the task of renewal and revitalisation in these terms possible (if not probable). While it is healthy scepticism to doubt whether the 'captain' of the proverbial oil tanker can alone turn around the 'ship' so quickly and easily given the existing and embedded trajectory of the union movement, the sense in which O'Grady could become a facilitator of change - rather than creator oí change - is a more serious and robust proposition, even though the power to do so depends on the will and resource of the TUC- affiliated unions and developments external to those unions.

Consequently, the purpose of this article is to take the change of leadership of the TUC as both a heuristic point of departure and a mechanism by which to examine the past, present and future trajectory of the union movement in Britain. In essence, the overarching research question has three aspects to it: what has happened to the unions, what is happening to unions and what will happen to the unions? Carrying out this task is organised by essentially splitting the article into two sections, namely, retrospect (dealing the past and present) and prospect (dealing with the future). And although judging the past is a relatively easier task, judging the present and future is more fraught because without the benefit of hindsight a counter- factual approach must necessarily be deployed. However, using a standard set of robust criteria, informed by past experience, helps minimise the problems and challenges in doing so. Indeed, doing so provides a good guide as to what a comeback must constitute in order to genuinely be a 'comeback'. This means that returning to former days of heightened influence will be no mean feat to achieve. As will become clear in the article, unions are neither seen as innocent bystanders in their fate. Nor are they seen as masters of their own destiny either. To paraphrase Marx, unions make their own history but not necessarily in circumstances of their own choosing. …