Democracy & trade unionism @ the TUC

The TUC is 150 years old. In leading, marshalling, coordinating and sometimes corralling the forces of labour in Britain for fifteen decades, the TUC has contributed significantly to democratic life in Britain. It has challenged anti-union employers to recognise the value of collective bargaining, and compelled policy-makers to listen to and accommodate the distinct interests of the workers by hand and brain. In bad times and good times, it has sought to counter corporate power, advance the rights of labour and improve the living standards of trade unionists.

Much of this progress has been in alliance with the Labour Party. The link between unions and party has been criticised from left and right. From a socialist perspective, the link has been seen as limiting the advance to the transformation of society, the party constrained by the ‘economistic’ goals and short-term defensive instincts of unions. The right has routinely characterised the link as undemocratic – the party the prisoner of its union paymasters.

Both left and right criticisms are tiresome because they are so inaccurate. More than 25 years ago, pre-dating ‘new’ Labour, Lewis Minkin’s sensitive and authoritative study, The Contentious Alliance, explained in great detail how the relationship really operated from the 1900s to the 1980s, with a series of unwritten rules, customs and practices. Unions, coordinated by the TUC, very rarely intruded in areas of Labour Party policy-making, beyond employment and industrial relations questions. When Labour was in power, under Attlee, Wilson and Callaghan, the unions provided vital economic and social ballast. Wage freezes were conceded in exchange for the economic stability on which the welfare state, National Health Service, full employment and broader material improvement were thought to depend.

In the 1970s, the TUC went even further, agreeing a social contract with the Labour Party to limit wage advances in return for enhanced social wages: subsidies of food and fuel prices, and other important increases in public expenditure. But the political and global economy pressures were too great for this bargain to hold. Famously the International Monetary Fund, called to intervene as public sector borrowing escalated, enforced serious spending cuts on the Labour government. These hacked away at the social wage and forced the unions back to the wage bargaining table. The subsequent industrial action, culminating in the winter of 1978-79, is usually remembered as ‘irresponsible’ but the TUC and its affiliates were struggling to protect the purchasing power of their members amid rapidly rising prices. From another perspective, moreover, unions had to negotiate on wages because they were given license to negotiate on nothing else, such was the unwillingness of employers to engage with their employees on other issues.

In this connection it is important to recall that the TUC’s other ambition in the 1970s, a significant advance towards industrial democracy, was thwarted. The 1977 Bullock report, commissioned by the Labour government and influenced by TUC officials and thinking, recommended the appointment of union-channel worker directors in private sector industrial firms with 2,000 or more employees. But this was resisted and defeated by an alliance of multinationals, the Confederation of British Industry, the Conservative opposition and some dissenters within Labour’s own ranks, including future Social Democratic Party defectors.

In stabilising Labour as a party of government across the mid-twentieth century, the TUC also intervened ideologically and organisationally against the Communist Party of Great Britain. The so-called ‘Black Circular’ of the 1930s barred Communists from holding office in Trades Councils affiliated to the TUC, and prefigured similar positioning and activism during the Cold War. Leading anti-communist union officials, notably Arthur Deakin, General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, at times moved the TUC well beyond a position of critical opposition to Stalinism. Workplace trade unionism in England in the docks, the car manufacturing industry, passenger transport and the fire brigades was adversely affected by the intolerance of communists exhibited by the TUC and some of its officials in the 1940s and 1950s.

In Scotland, however, different structures and contingencies were observable. The TUC had co-existed since 1897 with the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), formed largely on the basis of a competing conceptualisation of union democracy. Angela Tuckett’s 1986 account of the STUC’s first eighty years demonstrates the extent of dissatisfaction in Scotland in the 1880s and 1890s with the TUC, which was seen by many as unfairly dominated by the interests of a small number of large unions with memberships predominantly concentrated in England. There was little scope for the agency or influence of Scottish trades councils, which formed the initial core of the STUC.

Scottish particularity was a recurrent theme in the subsequent history of the STUC. Contrasting industrial structures in Scotland and England were surely important. The centrality of coal, metals, shipbuilding and heavy engineering to a distinct Scottish industrial identity has been repeatedly emphasised in cultural as well as economic history. The incremental loss of jobs in these sectors after post-Second World War employment peaks in the mid-1950s had a big impact on Scotland’s subsequent political and union trajectory. Skilled labour and Communist politics, especially in mining and shipbuilding, combined with deindustrialisation to cultivate union interest in the idea of Scotland as a nation, with particular economic and social interests that policy-makers at British level were unable to recognise or accommodate. The STUC was more critical than the TUC of Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s from a socialist perspective, but also cultivated and mobilised a cross-class progressive alliance in favour of Home Rule.

The ever-loosening union and the related causal factor of deindustrialisation have contributed since the 1980s to the dwindling role in Scotland’s public life of the TUC. The organisation nevertheless remains important, not least in policy debates about employment precariousness, universal basic income, the gender pay gap and the unfolding Brexit crisis. Its conceptualisation of union democracy has at times been crude and intolerant of dissenting voices, but the 150th anniversary is an important expression of the resilience of the labour movement and the continued relevance of its political institutions.

Jim Phillips is co-editor of Scottish Labour History and teaches at the University of Glasgow.