IAIN WATSON: The winter of discontent,
twenty-three years ago. According to some newspapers, history's repeating
itself. Yet last year fewer than half-a-million days were lost to strikes,
compared with twenty-nine million in 1979. But the perception that a new
era of consensus has been consigned to the dustbins of history all because
of a small number of high profile strikes is worrying Labour politicians;
they fear voters will see industrial action and Labour governments as conjoined
WATSON: 'New Unionism' was created
by modernisers when Labour was in opposition to banish this image of industrial
relations which was regularly satirised under the previous Labour government
of the seventies. So individual benefits rather than old-style collective
action became the focus - with the aim of attracting people in less traditional
industries, not just to the Labour, but to the trade union banner.
ALAN JOHNSON MP: Unions have changed dramatically
and changed in a way that reflects the fact there's more women in the work
place, there's a greater emphasis on individual rights, individuals want
more flexibility rather than to be ruled by a rigid shift system. I think
unions have met that challenge and are meeting that challenge.
JOHN MONKS: So an agenda which was looking
forward to where people I think mostly are now, and not looking back to
a "them and us" class warfare-based trade unionism, that was always an
exaggeration, but it was part of the image.
MARK SERWOTKA: If new unionism means forgetting
the basics of the trade union movement, which is ultimately to provide
collective representation and defence of its members, then I am against
WATSON: And the unlikely congregation
at this north London church have to be counted as doubting Thomases when
it comes to new unionism too. Members of the PCS trade union, working
in job centres and benefit offices have been in dispute since September
over plans to remove safety screens which shield them from potentially
violent customers. The Labour government had promised new rights in the
workplace in return for a culture of partnership.
There are some signs that
this bargain is breaking down. Some unions have elected far left candidates
to high office, but even moderate trade unions have little faith in what
they see as an almost theological commitment by the government to private
sector involvement in the public services. So some say new unionism is
finished, while old style trade unionism, rather like Lazarus, is risen
from the dead.
The government has so
far refused arbitration in this job centre dispute; some say that plays
into the hands of the far left who want new unionism to fail. A little
over a year ago the civil service union, the PCS, voted for a member of
the predominantly Trotskyite socialist alliance as general secretary elect.
He says there's a mood now for more robust representation.
SERWOTKA: Well I think my election
was significant and I think it has been followed by other trade unions
also going down the same route. Fundamentally you know I'm not prepared
to shy away from the issue of industrial action as a last resort, and I
think the members knew that when they voted for me.
WATSON: The RMT are now in negotiations
with South West trains but action continues in the north of England; and
last week postal workers voted for strike action too. There are fears at
the highest level that scenes of militancy may put off potential recruits
with fewer than one in five workers under thirty belonging to a trade union.
MONKS: It doesn't make it easier
to, I think to take people in the newer labour market in the newer industries
and services, if the image of trade unionism is join us and fight your
boss. I mean we know that most people want to get on well with their employer
to be held in respect and esteem by the people for whom they work and that's
a basic human need, but having said that it depends very much on people's
experiences. If they're having a rough time off their boss, they're looking
for a union that's tough and prepared to be militant.
JOHNSON: Strike action is damaging
to everyone involved, everyone involved. It does nothing to actually improve
WATSON: Despite criticizing industrial
action, the government seem reluctant to intervene to make scenes like
these a rarity. The Conservatives have signalled that they'd restrict the
rights of workers in essential services to go on strike unless they'd considered
less disruptive measures first. But Labour say that's going too far.
JOHNSON: It's typical of this kind
of repressive knee-jerk reaction and there was a few other despots in history
that had the same idea whose names would be very familiar to students of
these things, so I don't think there is any case whatsoever for banning
strikes when, you know, if there's industrial conflict, what's the reaction?
Oh, we'll just ban strikes - the conflicts are still there afterwards.
WATSON: The image of trade unions
in recent years has improved in the eyes of the wider electorate as debate
and discussion appeared to eclipse disputes and denunciations. But some
moderate trade union leaders worry about a reversal of fortune unless some
of their headstrong colleagues volunteer to sign up to more subtle ways
of settling disputes.
KEN JACKSON: Why not go to binding arbitration,
there's no difficulty, if you've got a case that you can support and that
an independent person will support, why don't you go to arbitration? It's
only at the end of arbitration where, when you've got the decision, and
an employer won't accept it, for whatever reason, then you know you, you're
free to take industrial action.
WATSON: It seems to be the government's
attitude as much as its actions towards trade unions which is causing tension.
The strategy had been to isolate far-left trade union leaders, but in reality
the ranks of the disaffected go much wider than that. Some supporters of
'new unionism' those with close links to the Labour Party, now feel alienated
by the government's tone towards trade unions. And this could cost Labour
rather more than they might have anticipated.
EDMONDS: Downing Street doesn't
make a distinction between people who are clearly mainstream members of
the Labour Party and trade unions and those that are members of other parties
on the extreme left. I mean that really is very silly indeed, and it makes
people very cross. I mean the idea that I'm on the ultra left when I've
always regarded myself as the sort of, rather sort of right of the Labour
Party, although some of it has gone past me in the last few years, I mean
that's really extraordinary and it's very difficult to make alliances with
people while you're abusing them.
WATSON: Contrary to reports, Number
Ten hasn't apologised for the suggestion that trade unions may have featured
in the rogue's gallery of wreckers last week. And the mighty GMB is still
angry over plans for more private sector involvement in the public services;
they're reducing affiliation fees to Labour and could hit the party's council
EDMONDS: What we're going to do
in the next few months is we're going to really focus on the local government
election and say, we regard that election as a referendum on public services
and privatisation. And the energy that we have and the support that we
can give will be focused on those Labour candidates who support our agenda.
People who don't support our agenda, no doubt they can get support elsewhere.
But the ones we will support will be those that believe that privatisation
has gone too far and should be reversed rather than continued. Instead
of saying to the Labour Party, here's the money, you campaign on our behalf,
much more of our money will be used by ourselves and we'll say we'll do
the campaigning and our members will decide the precise direction of it.
I think that's the way of the future.
JACKSON: Well I don't think any
prime minister of whatever political persuasion he is, is going to be publicly
held to ransom, I don't think you can do that and I don't think people
would respect any prime minister that was seen, because of people withholding
money, that he would then capitulate to the demands of what's going on.
WATSON: Labour ministers say there
will be no return to the bad old days.
JOHNSON: Our approach, which is
not anti-trade union as the previous government's approach was, and is
very much about giving people at work rights and responsibilities is the
right approach, and we need to do more to ensure we foster a partnership
approach collectively in the workplace.
EDMONDS: The new unionism agenda,
the partnership agenda, is fragile; and the way it needs to be strengthened
is by proper legal rights for people at work, proper security, a commitment
from the government that employers must provide decent information and
decent consultation rights. Without those things there is a danger that
people will say, well partnership is just hot air, let's forget it.
WATSON: While strikes are still
few in number, images of industrial militancy could affect how new unionism
is perceived. If voters fear that the era of consensus is in danger of
being replaced by confrontation, then Labour may yet pay a political price.
While they've little purchase with the far-left trade union leaders, the
government may need to work hard at promoting partnership with some formerly
loyal allies - if they want to avoid scenes of further collective action.