Labour Research July 2017


One hundred years of service

Labour Research this month celebrates 100 years of service to trade unions. We look at the many issues of concern to the movement the magazine has covered over the period.

In July 1917, the first edition of what was then called the Monthly Circular, published by the Fabian Research Department — the predecessor organisation to the Labour Research Department (LRD) — was published as the Great War continued to rage across Europe. 

The Circular provided information for trade unions on the labour market and the economy, updates on industrial disputes and government policy developments of interest to the labour movement. It was renamed Labour Research in 1930, continuing to provide specialist information in support of collective bargaining and industrial disputes. 

It also conducted detailed investigations into issues ranging from the arms trade, the rise of fascism and the continuing activities of the far right, colonialism and its legacy, company profits and shady corporate activities, and links between politicians and business (see box). 

Exposing the Tories’ dodgy dealings 

Over the years, an important strand of the work of the Labour Research Department (LRD) has been analyses of company accounts, reported in regular Labour Research features. 

The 1967 Companies Act also required that companies declare any political donations, and this became an important new source of information for the LRD’s research. 

In the 1980s, the wave of privatisations of formerly publicly-owned industries provided another new area of enquiry. Labour Research exposed the degree to which politicians and their friends in business had profited from the sell-offs. 

In April 1987, the magazine ran an investigation into the 1984 sell-off of British Telecom, finding that 101 MPs and 34 MPs’ spouses held BT shares. Ninety-one of the MPs were Conservative. 

The investigation also led to one Conservative MP, Keith Best, being convicted of fraud and briefly sent to prison. 

Our exposé found that Best had successfully made multiple applications for shares, despite this being against the rules. 

The applications had been made from different addresses and with slight variations on his full name. 

Labour Research has also focused on the revolving door between politicians and business. As 18 years of Tory rule was coming to an end in May 1997, our survey of 122 former ministers of the Conservative governments of that period found that three-quarters of them held lucrative directorships or consultancies. 

Fifty-six former ministers held positions at companies with which they would have had contact as ministers. And 16 had paid links with companies privatised by the Conservative governments since 1979.

Union membership

The Circular had been launched amid a period of rapid growth in the trade union movement. It reported the most recent figures on the size of the movement, showing a trade union membership of 4,126,793 at the end of 1915, “the highest yet recorded”. 

This was more than double the figure of 2,022,000 recorded by the government in 1900 and followed a period of dramatic expansion in the second half of the 19th century. In 1850, trade unionists in Britain numbered around 100,000.

By 1920, union membership had doubled again to 8,348,000. But there was a decline in trade union membership during the 1920s, the decade of the General Strike which brought Britain to a standstill. Although the numbers fell to 4,842,000 in 1930, membership recovered in subsequent decades, rising to 9,318,000 in 1949 and then peaking at over of 13,000,000 in 1979. 

And although trade union membership numbers have since declined to around half this amount, another trend highlighted in the first Circular has continued to this day — the growing importance of women to the trade union movement. 

Women in trade unions

The Monthly Circular reported on a number of industrial disputes involving women, including those by shop assistants in the dressmaking trade in Edinburgh and women tram conductors in Brighton. It also reported that the number of women trade unionists had grown in 1915 from 356,092 to 400,919, with women making up around 10% of trade unionists at this point. 

In 1915, a joint committee of the Fabian Research Department and the Fabian Women’s Group was established to investigate the employment of women in the engineering industry, amid concerns about the women being used as cheap “substitute” labour in the war years. The war had seen around two million women enter the workforce in order to take over the jobs of men called to battle.

The scope of the committee was later broadened to cover all industries in which women were employed, resulting in the lengthy and detailed study, Women in trade unions. This was published in 1920, by which point the number of women trade unionists had reached 1,342,000, around 16% of the total. 

Union historians’ continued interest in the report saw it being reprinted as a book by the LRD in 1984. 

The study highlighted the widespread practice of unequal pay between men and women doing similar jobs, making recommendations to address this, including that trade unions “put their own house in order” when it came to restrictions on female labour and barriers to women becoming union members. 

Women’s representation in unions continued to increase in subsequent decades, albeit rather slowly. 

But it wasn’t until 1970 that the Equal Pay Act outlawed discrimination in pay between men and women. And despite the strengthening of equality legislation over the years, the gender pay gap still persists as do a number of barriers to women’s progression in the workplace. 

The Ford equal pay dispute 

An important step towards the Equal Pay Act was the strike by women sewing machinists at the Ford Dagenham plant in 1968 over their demand to be regraded to an equivalent level to men doing comparable work elsewhere in the plant. 

However, although they won a pay rise bringing their earnings closer to their male counterparts, Labour Research reported in 1985 that the demand for regrading remained outstanding. Following another strike in 1984, the women accepted binding arbitration by the Acas conciliation service. 

A Labour Research article in February 1985 explained that all had to provide proof of their skills through a practical test before they could obtain employment with Ford, “the only Ford workers of whom this is required”. 

Moreover, “the continual introduction of new models makes their tasks even more complex and demanding in terms of skills, effort and responsibility”.

The ruling by the Acas conciliation service in the women’s favour finally led to the company agreeing to their regrading.

These are issues that Labour Research has returned to time and again. For example, in March 1987, Labour Research reported on the increased efforts by trade unions to recruit and organise women. 

It said that while overall trade union membership was declining, the number of women in employment was increasing and some unions had “recognised that women provide a major hope for maintaining or expanding their membership”. 

This also involved unions pushing women’s employment issues up the bargaining agenda, although this would not have occurred “without the persistent efforts by women and others in the unions to make their presence felt”, the article suggested. 

Since 2005, government statistics on trade union membership have shown that women outnumber men in the trade union movement. 

The data for 2016, released last month, shows that women make up 55% of trade union members. However, as Labour Research reported in the latest of our biennial features on women in unions in 2016, women still make up a lower proportion of trade union general secretaries and full-time officials. 

The higher proportion of women trade unionists also reflects another aspect of the changing face of the trade union movement, with 58% of union members working in the public sector, compared to 42% in the private sector. 

Women make up around three-quarters of the membership of public services union UNISON and of the larger teaching unions. 

Decline in collective bargaining

Trade union density is at 52.7% in the public sector compared to 13.4% in the private sector. As with overall trade union membership, the marked falls in trade union density in recent decades have been associated with a significant decline in collective bargaining coverage in the UK. 

In 1978, around 82% of workers in the UK had their working conditions set through collective bargaining. The figure is now 20%, compared to a European average of 60%.

This may also help to explain why the share of national income (GDP) that has gone to wages has declined from over 65% in the mid-1970s, to levels that have remained below 56% since the 1980s. 

And, along with the nature of the jobs that have been created, it helps explain why, despite official statistics showing record numbers of people in work and continued economic growth since 2009, the UK is the only large advanced economy in which wages have contracted. 

The impact on union membership and collective bargaining of the decline of old heavy industry and parts of manufacturing industry from where trade unions previously drew much of their membership, as well as the waves of privatisation and outsourcing since the 1980s that have led to a reduced and more fragmented workforce in what was the public sector, have been much discussed. 

In recent decades, the shift to a service-based economy with a more rapid turnover of staff among some employers, and the increasing casualisation of the workforce, have also made trade union organisation more difficult. 

Impact of technological change

The prospect of greater automation, the digitalisation of the economy where work is found through digital platforms and the shift to a gig economy — in which working lives become occasional gigs and where workers are forced into bogus self-employment by employers who avoid their responsibilities to their staff — also provide a challenge for workplace organisation and representation. 

But discussions of the impact of technological developments and new workforce organisation are not new, and have been reported for decades in the pages of Labour Research. 

In December 1963, a Labour Research feature discussed the impact of automation in a number of industries, including steel, engineering, furniture, printing, shipping, coal mining and the Post Office. 

Automation was described as the introduction of “the automatic machine which, once set up, follows a cycle of one or more operations”, and “the automatic feeding of that machine and the automatic transfer of work to another site”. 

In relation to coal mining, it said that whereas automation in this industry would have been thought impossible a few years previously, since March 1963, “coal has been coming out from two seams … without there being a single man at the coal face”. The article cited the warnings of Labour party leader Harold Wilson that there was a danger “that an unregulated, private enterprise economy” would not only promote “enough automation to create serious unemployment, but not enough to create a breakthrough in the production barrier”. 

Also cited was the Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Lord Hailsham, who promised that automation would bring more opportunities for skilled employment as a “new army of maintenance technicians will be substituted for the army of operators”. 

However, the head of an American firm making automation equipment was also cited. He said that the theory that automation would create jobs was “a myth”, citing evidence from the USA. 

Furthermore, “retraining is not always possible” he said, because people may be “too old” or not have “the necessary educational level”. Nor in the long run, would more maintenance jobs be created. 

“The hard truth here is that after the initial ‘debugging’ has taken place, there is relatively little maintenance work to do. If this were the case, it wouldn’t make sense to automate. And if the equivalent number of workers replaced by automation were required to build the machines and systems, there would also be no point to automation,” he said. 

Unions respond by organising

Trade unions’ responses to changes in the workforce and to new challenges in organising have also been covered with great frequency over the years in Labour Research. 

Back in October 1960, the magazine reported that a resolution had been carried at TUC Congress expressing concern at a dip in membership among TUC-affiliated members. 

The resolution, from the National Union of Vehicle Builders (later to merge with the TGWU general union and now part of Unite), expressed “serious concern at the need to recruit many thousands of non-unionists into the trade union movement, and at the number of young people who were not trade union members”. 

It called for “an examination of the steps necessary to secure greater participation by young people in trade union membership and activity”. 

In September 1987, Labour Research reported on proposals being discussed that month at the TUC Congress to address the 20% fall in membership over the previous decade. 

The overriding cause of this decline was the massive fall in employment over those years, the article said. But the disproportionate drops suffered by some unions, notably the National Union of Mineworkers whose membership had fallen by 60%, was largely the result of “a changed industrial structure” involving “the decline of sectors and firms with traditionally high union organisation and the growth of areas which unions have historically failed to penetrate”.

While areas such as manufacturing had seen the greatest shrinkage, it pointed out that growth in employment had come in areas such as hotel and catering, business services and wholesale distribution, which had low union densities. 

More broadly, the article referred to the shift in employment from manual blue collar workers to white collar workers and also a growth in part-time workers, both groups among whom union density was low. 

But the article suggested that perhaps the most important factor was the decline of the large workplace. 

It cited the British Workplace Industrial Relations survey which showed that in private sector workplaces with 25-49 employees, union density was 26%, while for workplaces of 1,000 or more it was 72%. The article reported that although unions had “been criticised for being slow to deal with the problem of disappearing memberships”, they had in recent years “been making more strenuous efforts to fill the gaps”. 

Examples given included the establishment by shopworkers’ union Usdaw of a top-level campaigning recruitment committee “to re-evaluate its traditional recruitment techniques and to improve the union’s appeal to women, part-timers and young people.” 

They also included opinion research carried out by the NUPE public sector manuals’ union (later to become part of UNISON) among existing and potential members to explore how the union could attract them. 

A motion to the TUC congress from the GMB general union called on unions to make their overriding priority the “recruitment and organisation of new groups of workers into trade unions”. 

And a TUC strategy paper proposed a switch away from efforts to influence a government “deaf to unions” and towards building a bigger and stronger trade union movement. This involved establishing an organising fund to help individual unions in intense recruitment campaigns, particularly in new towns and industries. 

Of course, the attack on the ability of trade unions to organise workers and defend their members, notably through the anti-union legislation of the Thatcher governments in the 1980s and Conservative governments since, has also impacted significantly on the movement’s ability to recruit in this changing workforce. The anti-union rhetoric of policy-makers has emboldened the union-breaking tactics of some employers. 

Reporting on the 18 years of Tory rule that was about to come to an end in May 1997, a Labour Research feature on the anti-union legislation passed since 1979 concluded that union-bashing “has become a way of life for the Tories, who exhibit no desire to stop”. 

Such Tory impulses have been unleashed again since their return to office from 2010, most notably with the vicious Trade Union Act passed last year.