Adversity and Opportunity: Towards Union Renewal in Manufacturing, Science and Finance?

By Carter, Bob | Capital & Class, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Adversity and Opportunity: Towards Union Renewal in Manufacturing, Science and Finance?


Carter, Bob, Capital & Class


ONE FACILE RESPONSE to the prospect of unemployment has been the advice to individuals threatened by it to regard the experience as a chance to change direction, not a problem, but a challenge and an opportunity. By this measure there is no shortage of challenge and opportunity in Britain. Similarly, to say that the restructuring of employment relations and, in particular, the decentralisation of bargaining, offers the unions an opportunity to reinvigorate themselves, might be open to the same criticism: it underestimates the nature and scale of the problems faced. Confronted with a plethora of employer initiatives, within a context of high levels of unemployment and government hostility, both membership numbers and union density have fallen. According to one account, in the six years between 1989 and 1995, trade unions lost over 18 of their total membership, leaving them with a fewer members than anytime since 1945 (Cully and Woodland 1996). Moreover, the falls seem set to continue.

While there have been a number of attempts to accommodate themselves to the changed economic and political situation in which they find themselves (Martinez Lucio and Weston 1992) unions have found it difficult to respond positively to the challenges. In particular, changing employment patterns and the de-centralisation of bargaining throw into question the formal organisation of unions, developed in a very different economic and political context, and unions have shown little willingness to respond radically to this challenge. Even unions which have stood against the `new realism', such as the TGWU, are now arguing for a new social partnership (Observer 28/7/96). Nevertheless, there is a credible case to be made for a perspective which argues against siren calls for a more managerial approach and, in effect, a more sophisticated accommodation to the changed circumstances and renewed confidence of capital (as exemplified by Heery 1996). Despite the poor responses of unions so far, there are, in short, opportunities to fashion a more democratic and accountable unionism because of the very failure of traditional models to protect trade union members.

This argument, that there is emerging the possibility of union renewal, is most closely associated with Fairbrother (1996). His contention is that with the demise of national bargaining in the state sector, and the growth of more overt managerial control at local level, `union members have taken tentative steps to generate more participative and active forms of unionism' (1996: 111). The locus of this activism is local and contrasts to 'a long history of remote, centralised and hierarchical forms of unionism' (1996:112). In order for union renewal to be accomplished, there needs to take place a transformation of the relationships between national organisations and workplace activity. More particularly, renewal requires 'a reversing of the flow of the traditional relationships characteristic of most unions, particularly in the state sector, so that the national level resources and facilitates rather than represents and thus controls' (1996:143). Fairbrother's perspectives have grown out of a longterm concern and involvement with state sector unionism dominated by particular traditions of employment relations and conflict resolution. This article aims to add another dimension to this debate by focusing on the reactions of a union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF), with markedly different bargaining traditions in different sectors, and yet facing similar problems of adjusting to the straitened conditions of the 1990s. In particular, it will examine the opportunities and barriers to the union's restructuring following the union's adoption of an 'organising' model, a model radically different from its traditional practice.1

MSF-bigger, not better The union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF), was formed in 1988 through the merger of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) and the Technical and Supervisory Staff (TASS), with its leaders holding out to the members of the combined union the promise of greater financial resources, an expansion of membership facilities and services, increased recruitment and greater bargaining power. …

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