BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.02.02

Film: IAIN WATSON asks whether New Unionism is under threat from an upturn in trade union militancy in public services.

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 twins. FILM CLIP: ACTUALITY 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 it. 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 employment relations. ACTUALITY. 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 candidates too. 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. ACTUALITY 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.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.