Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000

Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000

Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000

Trade Unions and the State: The Construction of Industrial Relations Institutions in Britain, 1890-2000

Synopsis

The collapse of Britain's powerful labor movement in the last quarter century has been one of the most significant and astonishing stories in recent political history. How were the governments of Margaret Thatcher and her successors able to tame the unions?


In analyzing how an entirely new industrial relations system was constructed after 1979, Howell offers a revisionist history of British trade unionism in the twentieth century. Most scholars regard Britain's industrial relations institutions as the product of a largely laissez faire system of labor relations, punctuated by occasional government interference. Howell, on the other hand, argues that the British state was the prime architect of three distinct systems of industrial relations established in the course of the twentieth century. The book contends that governments used a combination of administrative and judicial action, legislation, and a narrative of crisis to construct new forms of labor relations.


Understanding the demise of the unions requires a reinterpretation of how these earlier systems were constructed, and the role of the British government in that process. Meticulously researched, Trade Unions and the State not only sheds new light on one of Thatcher's most significant achievements but also tells us a great deal about the role of the state in industrial relations.

Excerpt

So though I'm a working man
I can ruin the government's plan
Though I'm not too hard
The sight of my card
Makes me some kind of superman.

Oh you don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
You don't get me I'm part of the union
Till the day I die, till the day I die.

THIS BOOK BEGINS with a puzzle. Why did the British labor movement so quickly succumb to the radical reforming efforts of Conservative governments elected after 1979? This was a labor movement at the peak of its power and influence in 1979, when more than half of all British employees belonged to unions and more than four-fifths were covered by collective pay-setting mechanisms. Trade union power was widely acknowledged to be immune to state reform efforts because it was embedded in decentralized workplace institutions, rather than being dependent upon a favorable framework of labor law, and the British labor movement had only recently successfully turned back two major government efforts to limit its power. Such reform efforts were more likely to lead to the downfall of governments than to any decline in trade union strength. And yet, twenty years later, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, trade union density has almost halved; the extent of collective bargaining coverage and the numbers of strikes have collapsed to the lowest levels since the 1920s (or even earlier); where trade unionism exists, it is of a weaker, more marginal form, consulted more often than negotiated with; and various forms of individualized industrial relations have come to dominate the landscape of the British economy. It should be said that so unexpected and rapid was British trade union decline that it went largely unnoticed and unacknowledged among academics until the early 1990s, when evidence from workplace surveys confirmed the transformation of the British industrial relations system.

To put the question that first set the research agenda for this book in a somewhat different way, why was Thatcherism, which enjoyed much more . . .

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