Power to the Cottage: The British Tradition of Free, Voluntary Collective Bargaining Is a Myth. the State Should Resume Its Role of Pressing Employers to Treat Unions as Partners

By Fishman, Nina | New Statesman (1996), September 9, 2002 | Go to article overview

Power to the Cottage: The British Tradition of Free, Voluntary Collective Bargaining Is a Myth. the State Should Resume Its Role of Pressing Employers to Treat Unions as Partners


Fishman, Nina, New Statesman (1996)


Trade unions played a central role not only in the formation of the Labour Party but in the creation of democracy itself. In the late 19th century, union leaders were among those agitating for an extension of the franchise. The union movement, said Ernest Bevin, had "wrenched the power from the castle and mansion and handed it to the cottage".

But the unions weren't just concerned with Westminster democracy; they also sought workplace democracy. In the First World War, under the demands of a total war economy, a consultative role for unions in the workplace, which had emerged in some industries prior to 1914, became generalised. The state acted as honest broker.

Some of these "co-determination" arrangements survived the inter-war period. And the government again turned to the unions in the battle against Nazi Germany. Winston Churchill's appointment of Bevin as minister of labour illustrated the cross-party view that an effective total war economy needed unions and employers to work together as equal partners.

Nobody then talked, as they were to do later, about the British tradition of "free, voluntary collective bargaining"--for the simple reason that there was never any such tradition. It was a convenient myth created by postwar Conservative governments, which quickly learnt that, because of the legacy of the inter-war years, no union leader could allow himself to be seen publicly treating with Tory politicians.

But this did not stop civil servants at the ministry of labour from providing conciliation and arbitration where negotiations between employers and the unions broke down. Nor did it alter the reality, recognised both by Tory cabinets and the TUC, that state pressure was a vital ingredient in compelling employers to accept the unions as social partners.

It was against this background that, when Labour returned to office in the mid-1960s, it resumed Aneurin Bevan's project, left unfinished at his resignation as minister of labour in 1951. The intention--enshrined in Barbara Castle's illfated white paper "In Place of Strife"--was to give the unions new workplace rights in return for accepting a statutory responsibility, shared with employers, to maintain orderly industrial relations and thus, by extension, to help promote productivity. The TUC, however, had now internalised the myth of free, voluntary collective bargaining. It insisted that the UK had the best system of industrial relations in the world because it was independent of state interference. Castle's project collapsed, as did Labour in the 1970 election.

This great failure has loomed over Labour for three decades. Both Nell Kinnock and John Smith recognised that a future Labour government should enact a full-scale reform of industrial relations to reassert the state's positive role, and set down rights and duties for both employers and the unions, thus bringing UK legislation and practice into line with the rest of the EU. And after the miners' strike collapsed in 1984, some union leaders began to acknowledge that free, voluntary collective bargaining might not be such a good idea for their members after all. But Labour leaders feared doing anything that might cause the breach between Labour and the unions to reopen.

By the late 1980s, the government was treating the unions with an indifference bordering on contempt. And Margaret Thatcher's hostility to the EU's social charter had allowed Kinnock to embark on a cautious repositioning away from free, voluntary collective bargaining. He wanted to move towards a Continental position (also favoured by his political hero Bevan) in which the state would act as guarantor of last resort for stable and responsible industrial relations.

Tony Blair, then shadow employment secretary, did nothing to further this project. He had concluded that in order to be electable, Labour governments must never again become involved in industrial relations. …

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