Organising unions, organising communities? Trades union councils and community union politics in England and Wales

Organising unions, organising communities? Trades union councils and community union politics in England and Wales
 Working Paper 10
Organising Unions, Organising Communities?
Trades Union Councils & Community Union Politics in England and
Department of Sociology and Criminology
University of the West of England &
ISBN: 978-1-86043-430-3
British Academy Research Grant SG-39742
1 Glossary
American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial
Black, Minority and Ethnic Workers
British National Party
Central Labor Councils
Communication Workers Union
General, Municipal and Boilermakers Trade Union
Iron and Steel Trades Confederation (now the Community
London Trades Council
Manufacturing, Science and Finance Union
National Federation of Trades Councils
National Health Service
National Union of Teachers
Public and Commercial Services Union
Private Finance Initiative
Service Employees International Union
Social Movement Unionism
The East London Citizens Organization
Transport and General Workers Union
Trades Union Congress
Unite Against Fascism
The Public Service Union
2 Introduction
In November 2005, the Trade Union Congress (TUC) hosted a conference on
‘Organising Unions, Organising Communities’. In the context of the
conference, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber highlighted the extent to
which the future of trade union organising was dependent on unions building
strong and sustainable links with local communities. It is noteworthy that at
both this conference and at an earlier conference on ‘community unionism’
organised by MSF in 2003 there were prominent keynote speeches from
representatives of the US labour movement. The 2005 conference was
addressed by Ken Zinn Director at the Center for Strategic Research which is
the research arm of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial
Organisations (AFL-CIO) Organizing Department and the earlier conference
was addressed by Joslyn N. Williams President of the Metropolitan
Washington Central Labor Council. Central labour councils (CLCs) are the
equivalent of trades union councils and the AFL-CIO is a confederation of
trade unions that plays a similar role to the TUC. The AFL-CIO has
encouraged the revitalisation of CLCs as part of its strategy of encouraging
the development of effective ‘community unionism’. The adoption of
‘community unionism’ as a strategic objective of the TUC seems to represent
an extension to the widely recognised emulation of the US ‘organising model’
by the UK labour movement that has included the establishment of the TUC
Organising Academy in 1998 (Fantasia and Voss 2004:121). There is,
however, an enduring question as to whether trades union councils are the
appropriate mechanism with which to build effective community-based trade
unionism in the UK. The TUC does not appear to be prioritising this aspect of
the US model and academic research on ‘community unionism’ in the UK
suggests that trades union councils are marginal to existing examples of
‘community unionism’ (Wills 2001; 2002; Wills and Simms 2004).
In this paper, we report on the findings of our research on trades union
councils in 2006 and reflect critically on whether there is a role for trades
unions councils in building effective ‘community unionism’ in the UK. In recent
years there has been a moderate upturn in trades union council activity. This
is reflected in a growth of community campaigns and alliances (Labour
Research 2003) and is confirmed by our own survey of trades union councils
in 2006. However, the results of our survey also highlight a series of serious
problems that pose a barrier to the growth or indeed long-term survival of
trades union councils. These include a narrow and ageing demographic
profile, a lack of resources and low levels of affiliation by constituent unions
whose own branch network has been seriously undermined by declining
membership participation and mergers. So, what is the future for local trades
union councils? Is it worth investing in these organisations in the way that the
AFL-CIO has invested in CLCs? If so, how could the structure and
3 organisation of trades union councils be reformed or restructured in order to
overcome the above problems and weaknesses? In order to address these
questions we focus on the following issues. First, we explore the academic
literature on community unionism in an attempt both to define the
phenomenon and address the issue as to why community unionism has
become an increasingly popular response to trades union decline in recent
years. Second, we present a brief history of trades council organising in the
UK in order to highlight the complex patterns of continuity and change with
regard to contemporary developments. Third, we provide an overview of
contemporary developments and initiatives in order to highlight the changing
priorities of the TUC and its constituent unions to community organising.
Fourth, we explore the development of ‘community unionism’ in the USA in
order to highlight important contextual and strategic differences between the
conceptualisation and development of community union organising in the UK
and the USA. Fifth, we report on our own survey of trades union councils in
the UK in order to examine the scale and form of contemporary community
union organising. Finally, we reflect critically on the potential strengths and
visible weaknesses of trades union councils as vehicles for effective
community union politics in the UK and suggest a series of reforms that could
exploit potential strengths and overcome the increasingly visible and serious
weaknesses associated with trades union councils.
Community unionism: A Review of the Literature
Trade unions have always balanced their ‘vested interest’ role of workplace
organisation with a broader ‘sword of justice’ role as part of a movement for
progressive social change (see Flanders 1975). Indeed, the political
legitimacy of the labour movement often rested on the extent to which trade
unions wielded the ‘sword of justice’ in an effective way outside the
workplace. The resulting political legitimacy could be translated back into
effective industrial strength measured in terms of trade union membership and
the commitment and loyalty of individual workers to the union. Hence, the
‘vested interest’ and ‘sword of justice’ roles of trade unions were mutually
supportive and contributed towards a virtuous circle of trade union industrial
strength and political legitimacy. During the past three decades both these
roles have undergone a sustained attack. In the UK, the development of
‘Thatcherism’ involved a sustained ideological attack on the legitimacy of
trade unions by right wing politicians and media in which the ‘vested interest’
role of trade unions was presented as inimical to the ‘common good’ and
trade unionists were presented as militant extremists (Hall 1979). This
provided the legitimation for a sustained attack on the ‘vested interest’ role of
trade unions through the repressive industrial relations legislation of the post1979 Thatcher administrations and this has been compounded by patterns of
de-industrialisation, privatisation and deregulation (Taylor 1993). While we
4 cannot enter into the complex debate regarding the reasons for union decline
(See Brown et al. 1999; Fairbrother 2000; Metcalf 2005; Millward et al. 2000),
trade unions have become locked into a vicious circle of declining industrial
strength and political legitimacy in which dwindling union membership and
recognition is compounded by reduced levels of political influence. A renewed
and re-focussed community union politics promises to break unions out of this
vicious circle by demonstrating that community organising can simultaneously
reverse the declining membership base of trade unions and re-establish a
public perception of trade unionism as a movement for progressive social
In the context of globalisation and neo-liberal restructuring, trade unions have
been subject to declining industrial strength and political legitimacy throughout
the developed world. There are examples of ‘community unionism’ that have
developed in response to the resulting crisis in Australia (Ellem 2003;
Tattershall 2005), Canada (Cranford 2003; Mathers 2000; Tufts 1998), and
the UK (Wills 2001; 2002; Wills and Simms 2004). The phenomenon is most
developed in the USA (Banks 1990: Brecher and Costello 1990;
Bronfenbrenner et al. 1998; Craft 1990; Fine 2005; Nissen 2004), where the
main focus has been on the AFL-CIO Union Cities strategy of revitalising
CLCs as part of an increasing reorientation of the US labour movement
around ‘community unionism’ (Eckstein 2001; Eimer 1999; Gapasin and Yates
1997). The apparent success of this strategy has been evident in the high
profile of initiatives such as the Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles
that had spectacular success in terms of building trade union organisation and
improving the pay and conditions amongst marginal and mainly female and
Latino workers in Southern California (Pulido 1998; see Rowbotham and
Mitter 1994 for a global exploration of these developments). The literature has
demonstrated the increasing importance of alliances between unions and
religious groups (Bole 1998; Peters and Merrill 1998) and the centrality of
immigrants and black and minority ethnic groups in the development of
‘community unionism’ (Fine 2006). There has been a focus on the emergence
of a new type of activist or ‘bridge-builder’ - individuals who share the ‘labour’
and ‘community’ viewpoints and the importance of local CLC leadership
(Nissen 2004).
This academic literature has highlighted a number of potential benefits and a
series of dangers and drawbacks for trade unions in the development of
community alliances. The potential benefits include the empowerment of rankand-file members, the recruitment of new union members beyond traditional
membership bases and the recruitment of younger activists into the labour
movement. The literature also highlights the success of community unions in
raising wages and improving working conditions and thereby rearticulating the
‘sword of justice’ role of trade unions in the contemporary context. A number
5 of arguments have been developed to explain the success of ‘community
unionism’. These include the argument that low waged workers tend to have
greater political power than economic power in contemporary society (Fine
2005) which can be exploited through the linking of marginal groups with
trades unions, local politicians and local media (Wills 2002: 6). There is also
the extent to which ‘community unionism’ enables the labour movement to
resist the spatial re-organisation of capitalism associated with neo-liberalism
and globalisation (Tufts 1998) and translate trade union traditions across
spaces and sectors in a multi-scalar resistance to restructuring (Wills 1996).
The literature has also highlighted a number of drawbacks and limitations
associated with ‘community unionism’. These include the generation of
institutional rivalries between trade union and community organisations based
on a mismatch in organisational procedures and priorities between formally
structured trade unions and looser and more ad hoc forms of community
organisation. These rivalries can reflect an imbalance of power and resources
between unions and community groups and this is linked to the argument that
labour movement organisations can only engage in community alliances as
the dominant partner as part of a ‘vanguard coalition’ which precludes the
development of ‘common cause’ coalitions (Heckscher and Palmer 1993). It
has also been suggested that ‘community unionism’ lacks a political ideology
or more specifically an ‘ideology of labour’ premised on an independent and
oppositional politics without which labour lacks coherence as a movement
(Gapasin and Yates 1997: 59-61).
The debate in the UK has tended to focus on the promise of what Wills and
Simms (2004) have termed ‘reciprocal community unionism’. This strategy
involves the articulation of trade union interests and agendas in a way that
connects with wider community interests. Trade unions thus have the
potential to move beyond being the silent partners of the Labour Party to
develop their own voice and power through working with community groups.
‘Community unionism’ is presented as a potential site for the development of
a ‘transversal politics’ with the potential to combine the politics of recognition
and redistribution in a way that can unite the cultural and trade union left
(Wills 2001: 471). From this perspective, however, the tide of history seems to
be against the involvement of trades union councils in this new form of
politics. It is argued that trades councils were dominant in the first phase of
‘community unionism’ in the 19th century. During this period trade unions were
not only based in local communities, but also played a central role in the
construction and maintenance of local communities. Trades councils were
marginalised during the 20th century as a result of the dynamics of Fordism
and Keynesianism that consolidated the industrial strength of the labour
movement within the workplace and its political strength in the electoral
politics of the Labour Party. During the 20th century, therefore, the ‘vested
interest’ and ‘sword of justice’ roles of the labour movement were subject to a
6 partial institutional separation. During this period of ‘representational
community unionism’ the trade union movement continued to be involved in
shaping the local community through workplace trade unionism, trades
councils and indirectly via the Labour Party. This model of community-union
relations began to breakdown in the 1970s owing to the Thatcherite attack on
workplace trade unionism and the electoral weakness of the Labour Party.
In the new context, the proponents of community unionism argue that trade
unions should seek to develop ‘reciprocal community unionism’. This involves
an important shift from the dominant model of post-war trade unionism which
operated with a vertical organisational model based on the workplace.
‘Reciprocal community unionism’ involves experimenting with new horizontal
forms of organisation with a community focussed agenda in which trade
unions find common cause with groups centred on affiliations of religion, race,
gender, disability and sexuality. There is, however, a question mark as to
whether this model of community organising is a vibrant model for trade union
renewal or an indication of trade union weakness and defeat. Indeed, Wills
(2006), subsequent to her enthusiastic support for the Living Wage
Campaigns organised by London Citizens, has questioned whether they
amount to anything more than an ‘agonised liberalism’ that reflects the defeat
and weakness of the political ‘left’. This raises the question of whether these
networks of ‘reciprocal community unionism’ are the most effective forms of
organisation to fill the geographical and strategic gaps left by the demise of
trades councils. Or do their limitations highlight the need to rebuild and
revitalise trades union councils as independent and autonomous
organisations of labour in the community? To begin to provide an answer we
need to question whether the tide of history is really moving against trades
union councils. We will explore this matter through a review of the history of
trades councils in Britain.
A Brief History of Trades Councils in the UK
Trades union councils (or Trades Councils as they were formerly known)
‘have a long and honourable but chequered history’ (Flanders 1968: 66).
Clinton (1977: 2) states that trades councils changed from vital institutions in
building the strength of a locally based trade unionism in the mid-late 19th
century to the ‘humble instruments’ of the centralised movement of a century
later. However, the largely subservient position of trades councils in the latter
20th century, he suggests, was the outcome of a protracted conflict over
visions and practices of trade unionism which saw the fortunes of trades
councils ebb and flow. Such a perspective highlights the limitations of a recent
historical account developed by Jane Wills and Melanie Simms (Wills and
Simms 2004). This account tends to read off the changing fortunes of trades
councils from the structural and spatial development of the capitalist economy
and, therefore, obscures the way that trades councils have played a part in
7 the struggles through which they have been formed and reformed. The
argument of Stevens (1997: 6), that the conflict within trades councils
between ‘loyalists and left-wingers … constituted a part of the wider struggle
for the overall direction of the British trade union and labour movements’, is
thus applicable to a period longer than the 25 years on which he focused.
The origins of trades councils can be traced back to the ‘joint bodies’ of
unions which were formed spasmodically to mobilise solidarity for workers’
struggles occurring in the period of industrial and political unrest lasting from
1816 to 1834 (Cole 1948: 186). Permanent organisations were formed from
the 1850s onwards and the period between 1855 and 1866 saw the
establishment of 24 trades councils (Fraser 1999). During this period, trades
councils played an important economic and ideological role through the
coordination of solidarity for strikes and the influencing of public attitudes
towards trade unionism. However, they also developed a political role. In the
1868 general election campaign, trades councils ‘pestered the candidates
with questions about their attitudes on the problem of trade union rights’ (Cole
op cit: 205). In 1868 there was the first conference of the TUC following a call
by Manchester and Salford Trades Council (Pelling 1976). Trades councils
declined in the decade following 1875 but this was reversed dramatically by
’new unionism’ and the spread of the ‘idea of solidarity, prominent in the
upheaval of 1889’ (Cole op cit: 246). Between 1889 and 1892 there were 77
new trades councils and the affiliation to the London Trades Council (LTC)
increased fivefold while that to Glasgow and Birmingham trades councils
doubled (Fraser op cit). It was the ‘new unionists’ in particular who were keen
to establish new trades councils as vehicles for waging municipal labour
politics (Pelling op cit: 100). In this context, trades councils addressed
questions of general interest to working people, such as unemployment,
housing and public health and put pressure on local authorities to pay union
rates and for ‘fair wage clauses’ to be inserted in public contracts (Clinton op
cit: 3). New unionism also had a political dimension which included the aim of
creating independent representation for labour. The Labour Electoral
Association (1887-1895) was based on trades council affiliations although it
did not pursue an entirely independent line from the Liberal Party. By 1895,
new unionists and socialists were dominant within trades councils which they
used as vehicles for ‘Socialist propaganda’ and for gaining delegate
credentials to the TUC (Cole op cit: 247).
Trades councils were expelled from the TUC in 1895. This has been
presented as part of a struggle between ‘Lib-Labs and socialists’ (Fraser op
cit: 95) or a ‘manoeuvre’ to reduce socialist influence within the trade unions
(Cole op cit: 253) by established and more conservative sections of the TUC.
While Clinton (op cit: 96) rejects this argument in favour of regarding the
expulsion as part of a general process of trade union centralisation, it is
8 notable that it was only after the marginalisation of trades councils and the
deradicalisation of the TUC (Hobsbawm 1984: 559) that national unions finally
overcame their suspicion and jealousy towards trades councils and in the
early twentieth century encouraged local branches to affiliate (Webb and
Webb 1920a). Fabianism promoted a restricted and non-partisan political role
for trades councils (Webb and Webb 1920b). This vied with the more
expansive and partisan role envisaged by the radical doctrines of syndicalism,
guild socialism and communism. From the latter perspectives, trades councils
were not only regarded as the vehicles for establishing working class unity in
the locality, but also as ‘future organs of government’ (Clinton op cit: 84). In
the years 1918-1924 there was a significant rise in the number of trades
councils and intensified political activity. Trades councils were at the forefront
in calling for reorienting the labour movement in an anti-capitalist direction and
reorganising it along less sectional lines. In 1922, the National Federation of
Trades Councils (NFTC) was established which included participation by
Communist Party members. Although making friendly overtures to the TUC,
the NFTC received an unfriendly response. By the first national conference of
Trades Councils the following year, ‘the TUC leaders were in control’ with
discussion on trades council affiliation to the TUC being disallowed amidst
rank and file complaints of exclusion from policy matters (Clinton op cit: 111).
In spite of their subordination within the structures of the official movement,
trades councils experienced their ‘hour of glory’ the following year in the
General Strike (Cole 1939: 187). During the strike, most councils went well
beyond the vague instructions issued by the General Council to form local
‘Councils of Action’ and established committees relating to such wide ranging
functions as picketing, workers’ defence, prisoners’ assistance and
entertainment. Trades councils proved to be the only bodies capable of
coordinating local support for the strike and therefore wielded ‘great power’,
but this did not translate into any significant or widespread challenge to the
established institutions of local authority, nor was any such challenge
seriously envisaged (Clinton op cit: 132).
Following the defeat of the General Strike, trades councils failed to grow in
numbers or size. While they continued to support unions in disputes and
engage in community politics, they operated with a more limited degree of
independence. This was partly due to the ‘almost fanatical force’ used by the
TUC and national union leaders to stifle any independence (Clinton ibid: 137).
The witch-hunting of communists and the organisation of the unemployed
were two of the main issues around which ‘tension and conflict’ arose
between the TUC and trades councils. Trades councils that refused to
implement the ‘Black Circulars’, that excluded communists from becoming
delegates, were removed from the TUC list of recognised councils (Clinton
ibid: 145). However, while most councils eventually accepted the circulars,
many ignored them in practice (Laybourn and Murphy 1999; Stevens, 1993).
9 The TUC also encouraged councils to form unemployed organisations: a
largely unsuccessful initiative inspired by opposition to the communist led
unemployed marches (Clinton, op cit). The central plank of the TUC agenda
for trades councils was set out in 1935 by Walter Citrine who regarded them
as agents of local recruitment campaigns. This was a top-down approach ‘as
the TUC sought to use trades council to increase their profile, membership
and influence’ (Wills 2002: 54). It was also indicative of the TUC ‘policy of
containment’ of trades councils which operated mainly in this period by
measures aimed at detaching ‘political’ from ‘industrial’ functions (Stevens
1997: 7). The ‘Black Circulars’ were finally withdrawn in 1943, but the onset of
the Cold War provided a new impetus for the introduction of restrictive
measures such as mandatory registration with the TUC and careful
examination of council minutes. This was justified by the apparently
undemocratic seizure of trades councils by Communists which was
highlighted by the TUC in a pamphlet titled The Tactics of Disruption:
Communist Methods Exposed published in 1949 (Phillips 1999). Despite such
measures, trades councils ‘expanded considerably’ in the 1940s (Stevens op
cit: 7) and played a prominent role in political activities such as the campaign
to ban fascist organisations (Renton 2000). By the 1950s, Trades Councils
were still ‘important organisations’ (Stevens 1997: 7) with 15,000 affiliated
branches totalling more than 2.5 million members (Flanders, op cit). However,
by this time trades councils had largely become the tools of nationally
established policies (Clinton op cit) especially following the TUC’s successful
‘battle for control’ over the London Trades Council (LTC) which ended in 1953
(Stevens 1997: 14). While these political manoeuvrings were important, it was
the rise of national collective bargaining and the national political influence of
the TUC through the Labour Party which, from the 1950s onwards, resulted in
trades councils becoming largely discredited and left to decline. By the 1970s,
a leading industrial relations text described the rather limited functions of
trades councils as being ‘to nominate union representatives to regional
councils, to provide services to the member unions and to spread the policies
of the TUC’ (Williamson 1970: 58).
The extent to which trades councils went beyond this role after the mid-1950s
is a matter which requires further investigation. However, it is apparent that
the crisis of Keynesianism in the 1970s was met by an attempt by some
trades councils to co-ordinate and generalise resistance and by so doing reorientate themselves as part of a broader socio-political movement. Wills and
Simms (op cit) recognised the part played by trades councils in developing
alliances to defend jobs threatened by industrial restructuring. Wainwright
(1979) identified a tendency for trades councils to co-ordinate local bodies into
a more coherent movement and to campaign around broader issues such as
unemployment, racism and public services. At this time, trades councils were
seen as operating as socialist organisations, but with the significant limitation
10 of not being capable of wielding any industrial power due to the distance
which had developed between the official body and the grassroots
membership (Wainwright ibid: 226). A similar limitation was also recognised
by activists involved in campaigning around welfare state restructuring who
argued that initiatives to link community based organisations with trades
councils did so mainly at the level of local officialdom (LEWRG 1979). Trades
councils were also prominent in taking the initiative to set up Miners Support
Groups during the 1984-5 strike, but did not seem to play the same central or
co-ordinating role seen in the previous decade (Massey and Wainwright
1985). The idea that trades councils ‘have long established roots which can
survive failures and isolation’ (Wainwright op cit: 232) was then put to the test.
According to Fairbrother (2000: 78), many must have failed as ‘councils were
prone to become forums for the politics of political illusion’ and a substitute for
participation in union branches. The extent to which this position is supported
by the recent revival of interest in community unionism in the UK is explored
in the next section.
Community Unionism’ in the UK: Recent Developments and Initiatives
In recent years there has been a renewed interest within the British labour
movement in ‘community unionism’ mainly as a result of two important
developments. The first has been driven by a series of endogenous factors
that have resulted in the decline of local trades union councils as
organisations which had traditionally formed the bridge between the labour
movement and the wider community. The second has been driven by a series
of exogenous factors including the success of ‘community unionism’ in the
USA as part of an ‘organising’ approach that has been emulated by the TUC
and the broader labour movement in Britain. The decline of trades union
councils is marked. In 1982 the number of officially recognised trades union
councils was 418 and in 2002 this had declined to 138 (Labour Research
2003). In 1992, the TUC General Council outlined proposals to reactivate
trades councils and made recommendations that affiliated unions should
nominate and encourage national and regional officers to take responsibility
for liaising with and developing trades union councils. Since that time there
have been limited signs of rejuvenation which have been the products of two
main dynamics. First, the election or appointment of new officers following
protracted periods of moribund activity. This was the case in Cardiff, where
the election of a new leadership coincided with new affiliations, increased
local networking and the activity of a younger generation of activists motivated
by protests against the war in Iraq. In Chelmsford, the election of new officers
was followed by intensified local networking and successful campaigns on
NHS reform and a joint campaign with OXFAM on making Chelmsford a ‘fair
trade town’. Second, the concern of the TUC to build community campaigns
against racism in the context of the increased electoral success of the BNP in
11 many towns in Northern England. This was the case in Oldham, Greater
Manchester where a moribund trades union council was re-established by the
North West Regional TUC in order to coordinate a community campaign
against the BNP (Labour Research 2003).
The second externally driven dynamic underpinning the renewed interest in
‘community unionism’ is the perceived success of labour-community alliances
in rejuvenating trade unionism in the USA. The TUC has presented
‘community unionism’ as a central plank in its ‘New Unionism’ project which
includes the establishment of an Organising Academy to train a new
generation of activists to ‘reach out to workers in all walks of life’ (O’Grady
1999). The development of community union skills was central to the ethos of
the Academy and the TUC strategy was based on an explicit attempt to
emulate developments in the USA (O’Grady ibid: 11). The emulation of the
US ‘organising’ model has not, however, involved a radical reappraisal of the
power and resources available to trades union councils in the way that the
AFL-CIO focussed on the power and resources of CLCs in the USA. The way
in which ‘community unionism’ fits into the current thinking of the TUC is
expressed by Frances O’Grady, Deputy General Secretary and formerly
Director of the ‘New Unionism’ project:
Community unionism offers a way forward, not as a substitute for
workplace organizing, but as a complement to it. It is based on the
simple premise that the combined power of all those social movements
which want to see a more just and equal society is much greater than
any one of them on their own. We all share a belief in active
citizenship, inclusiveness and the drive to deepen democracy…….
community unionism needs to learn tolerance for our differences, build
sustainable links and focus on the real interests we share… (O’Grady
ibid: 12).
The development of ‘community unionism’ is thus about building trade union
voice within community campaigns as part of an overarching strategy of
organising difficult to organise workers in an attempt to boost levels of union
membership and recognition. Hence, the development of union-community
links is also a central component of the TUC campaign to recruit black and
minority ethnic (BME) workers in which the TUC has made it a priority to reestablish links between black activists and trade unionists (Labour Research
2005). These links were developed in the 1980s and were manifested in the
support of union branches for community-based campaigns against the
deportation of asylum seekers, racial attacks and racial murders and the
support and solidarity of black delegations for striking miners during the 19845 dispute. However, the emergence of a new generation of black activists,
who have been politicised through the anti-war and anti-globalisation
movements, do not see trade unions as their natural allies in their battles for
12 freedom and justice (See Holgate, 2005 on the broader problems associated
with organising BME workers). The TUC ‘Organising Black Workers’ project is
an attempt to organise BME workers by forging links with BME community
organisations and has consisted of a number of ‘roundtables’ in major cities
that have assembled black trade union activists and black community activists
to explore how to make trade unions more relevant to black people, how to
develop links between trade unions and BME communities and the ways in
which trade unions can support community campaigns.
The focus on BME workers and the emulation of the US model have produced
initiatives such as the ‘living wage’ campaigns developed by TELCO and
more recently London Citizens that involve trade unions forging alliances with
different groups of people who have a common stake in the vibrancy of local
civil society and the quality of community life. TELCO attempted to emulate
campaigns in North America which successfully aligned unions with faith and
community groups around issues of economic and social justice (Wills 2002:
27). As well as this focus on metropolitan areas, there has been an attempt to
utilise ‘community unionism’ as a catalyst for community regeneration in
declining or re-industrialising regions. The Iron and Steel Trades
Confederation ( ISTC), renamed the Community Union, has attempted to
move beyond its narrow and declining base in the iron and steel industries in
communities such as South Wales, Scotland, South Yorkshire and North East
England to organise workers across communities. However, as Wills (2001:
474) notes, following the Industrial Relations Act 1999 the main priority of the
ISTC has been on union recognition procedures rather than community
organising. At this point it will be useful to review briefly the model of
community unionism that has developed in the USA in order to understand
the nature and scope of the ‘successes’ that British unions have been
attempting to emulate.
The Revitalisation of Central Labor Councils in the USA: Success and
The general background to the revitalisation of CLCs in the USA in the 1990s
was the declining strength of the labour movement as evidenced by low and
falling levels of union density alongside a diminished capacity to mobilise
industrial and political influence. The long-term decline of the US labour
movement was accelerated in the 1980s and early 1990s by an aggressive
anti-union stance taken by employers and the state. Since the early 1990s,
neo-liberal restructuring has involved the transnationalisation of production,
intensified labour migration especially of Latino workers into the USA, a
reduction in the quality and scope of democracy as power has been
transferred from representative to trans- and supranational organisations and
increased capital mobility that has undermined established collective
bargaining mechanisms (Robinson 2003: 200-3). The incumbent leadership
13 clung steadfastly to the dominant model of business unionism and failed to
respond adequately to the crisis. The failure of both ‘productivity pacts’ with
employers and the strategy of providing uncritical support for the Democratic
Party in return for promised labour reform to deliver substantive gains for US
workers provided the basis for the emergence of a new radical leadership
during the mid-1990s. Neoliberal restructuring thus contributed to the
development of a more critical and inclusive type of trade unionism that
culminated eventually in the election of a new leadership for the AFL-CIO that
was more inclined towards an organising and community approach to union
revitalisation (Robinson 2003). These changes in union culture were
responses to the decline in the industrial sector which produced a more
critical union perspective on economic management and to the expansion of
the service sector where membership growth was greatest amongst women
and ethnic minority workers who favoured an inclusive union culture. These
workers were particularly open to the moral vision for trade unionism
articulated by emerging leaders such as John Sweeney, which drove
successful organising campaigns such as the renowned Justice for Janitors
initiative in Los Angeles. These new members also provided a new political
base for the election of the ‘New Voice’ slate to the leadership of the AFLCIO. In the light of these experiences, the new leadership of the AFL-CIO
changed its political spending towards educating its membership and voter
mobilisation which became key tasks for the newly oriented CLCs.
Reorienting and revitalising CLCs were not easy tasks as, by the mid-1990s,
they resembled the ‘dinosaurs’ of a passing era of craft unionism. CLCs were
dominated by the conservative building trades unions and produced
leadership figures that were unrepresentative of an increasingly diverse
workforce. Their activities were strictly limited to ‘providing perfunctory
services and organizing obligatory Labor Day parades’ (Ness 2001: 16). In
spite of their largely dormant state, there existed a handful of newly elected
local leaders who set about spreading their strategy for reinvigorating CLCs to
the national level. In 1996, the AFL-CIO convened the first national meeting of
CLCs which set up an advisory council that produced a programme for
developing CLCs called ‘Union Cities’. Its goal was to ‘revitalise labor councils
as support centres for expanding labour’s economic and political power’ (Ness
ibid: 20) and its practice was to provide additional resources to those CLCs
that were able to meet its main priority of supporting union organising. While
commentators assessed this initiative as having the potential to revitalise
CLCs as vehicles for union solidarity and as means for developing a union
focus beyond the workplace (Fantasia and Voss op cit) the actual advances
made were significant, but still very limited. Union Cities was launched in 1997
and by 1999 only just over a quarter of CLCs had joined (Eimer 2001) and
only about 15-20 CLCs in major cities had been fully reactivated (Ness op cit).
14 Nevertheless, there exist specific cases which demonstrate the type and
quality of activity of which revitalised CLCs have been capable.
Union Cities encouraged King City Labor Council in Seattle to focus its
existing organising efforts to help form a multi-union organising body named
‘Seattle Union Now’ whose main goal was to establish the ‘right to organise as
a commonly recognised civil right’ (cited in Rosenblum 2001: 180). This
involved a deal between the CLC and local unions whereby the latter received
practical assistance with the mobilisation of solidarity in return for a
commitment to engage in campaigns. This assistance ranged from letter
writing and picketing to direct action, access to political and
community/religious leaders and support and training in research and media
relations. The situation facing immigrant workers was particularly pertinent to
the attempted transformation of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor.
Although still dominated by the old conservative leadership, the organising
agenda created some space for radical activists to overcome some of the
obstacles to linking organised labour and associations of immigrant workers.
The election of new officers from the Latino community also reinforced the
political strategy of mobilising the Latino vote which indicates that political as
well as organising activity formed an important element of the revitalisation
strategy (Gapasin 2001).
An independent political strategy was pronounced in Atlanta where the CLC’s
backing for a successful mayoral candidate translated into political influence
that ensured union contracts for work in relation to the 1996 Olympics. In
addition to the usual routine of political activities such as leafleting and
canvassing, Atlanta CLC also engaged in direct action such as occupying and
marching on the office of the Democrat State Governor, who broke an
electoral promise not to privatise public services. This campaign also included
a prayer meeting with Black church members indicating how CLCs have
attempted to gain the support of religious groups in order to underpin the
moral legitimacy of their message and mobilisations (Acuff 2001). CLCs have
also monitored the voting records of politicians on labour issues and have
arranged pre-endorsement meetings to quiz candidates of all parties on policy
issues. In Wisconsin, this practice was regarded as having made a significant
contribution to the passage of a living wage ordinance (Zullo 2001). Wisconsin
was one of a growing number of CLCs that committed staff to the campaigns
for living wage ordinances which are local –often city level – laws that
establish a wage floor for particular groups of workers. While some CLCs
used existing political influence, others used the living wage issue as a means
of political leverage with, for example, the CLC in Somerville, Massachusetts
refusing to endorse any candidate until a living wage ordinance was passed.
These campaigns also involved CLCs in coalitions with a diversity of
15 organisations including those representing students and the elderly as well as
churches and other faith organisations (Luce 2001).
While real progress has been made with the transformation of a small, but
significant number of CLCs, this has been limited by both external and internal
factors. While there has been some evidence of rising worker militancy such
as the strikes at UPS and Boeing in the mid-1990s, this cannot be
characterised as the ‘next upsurge’ in worker mobilisation (Clawson 2003).
Significantly, a great deal of the initiative for change in the union movement
has come from the influx of radicals from other social movements. Some of
these radicals have been appointed rather than elected to positions of
influence in unions and the AFL-CIO (Fantasia op cit). At CLC level, such
progressive radicals have also been engaged in an internal power struggle
against the incumbent conservative leadership (Gapasin op cit) and where
this fight has been too slow or difficult to wage, they have been key in
developing the activity of the campaigning organisation ‘Jobs with Justice’
which has worked closely with CLCs in some localities (Fantasia op cit).
Another problem of the rather top-down impetus for change has been the
institutional relationship between the AFL-CIO and its affiliates. The former
has little power to do anything more than prod the latter to ensure that union
locals affiliate to CLCs thereby still leaving these bodies subject to chronically
low levels of affiliation and underfunding. Moreover, the current leadership
has been attempting to overcome an institutional legacy of its own neglect of
CLCs and of attempts to restrict their autonomy and power (Eimer op cit). This
suggests that the difficult task of revitalising CLCs has not only been due to a
hostile external environment, but has been compounded by bitterly contested
inter- and intra-organisational union politics as evidenced by the split within
the AFL-CIO in 2005 when the Teamsters and the SEIU left to form the
‘Change to Win’ coalition (see Crosby 2006; Milkman 2006).
As we have seen, therefore, from a position of seemingly terminal decline
trades union councils in the UK have shown modest signs of rejuvenation in
recent years. This has been in a context in which the TUC and individual
unions have attempted to emulate successful union-community forms of
political activity that have developed in the USA. The transplantation of the US
model has been rather selective particularly with regard to the lack of focus on
trades union councils in the UK in comparison with the centrality of CLCs in
the USA. We have suggested that there may be important historical and
political ‘path dependencies’ in the UK to account for this selectivity. The
question that needs to be posed is whether the ongoing weakness and
marginalisation of trades union councils best serves the long-term interests of
the British labour movement. In the next section, we present the results of a
survey on trades union councils that will hopefully contribute towards an
engagement with this important issue.
16 Trades Union Councils: Recent Patterns of Decline and Regeneration.
In order to assess contemporary patterns of trades union council decline and
regeneration a survey of trades union councils in England and Wales was
undertaken. The research was carried out during 2006 and comprised a
postal questionnaire that was sent to 123 trades union councils in England
and Wales and a follow-up series of case study interviews with officers in 10
trades union councils. The response rate to the questionnaire was 51 per cent
and responses were gained from all TUC regions (See Appendix: Table 1).
Yorkshire and Humberside is the only region that is significantly underrepresented in the resulting data. The questionnaire and interviews engaged
with the following issues: the demographic composition of trades union
councils; levels of participation and affiliation; the activities and priorities and
the political engagement of trades union councils.
The demographic profile of both officers and delegates is preponderantly
elderly, white and male. This reflects the narrow demographic range of union
activists and union membership. The age profile of trades union council
secretaries is positively skewed towards the older age ranges with 46.7 per
cent being over 60, 81.7 per cent over 50 and only 1.7 per cent under 40 (see
Appendix: Figure 1). In terms of gender composition, 88.3 per cent were male
and 11.7 per cent were female (see Appendix: Figure 2). The ethnic profile of
secretaries highlighted that 93.3 per cent were ‘white UK’ with ‘white other’
being the only other significant category (3.3 per cent) (see Appendix: Figure
3). The following were typical of the comments on the perceived demographic
crisis within trades union councils:
Of all our delegates only one is in employment, the rest of the council
are retired members. We often feel that we are out of touch with
industrial issues. Someone somewhere has to get young people
involved if we are to survive as a progressive organisation.
Our only problem is that we cannot get younger delegates from our
affiliated unions. Most of our delegates are ‘elderly’.
If you send researchers to the conference in Torquay you will see an
ailing organisation. This reflects the collective age of local trades union
councils. … The youngest delegate we have is in his mid-40s. The
trades council is mainly male and white, which is something which can
only be changed when more branches and hence more delegates from
a wider background can be tempted to become members.
There are examples of marked rejuvenation where a younger and more
demographically diverse leadership has developed. A good illustration of this
is the case of Cardiff, which has seen a marked increase in attendance in
recent years (attendance up by 100 per cent). This has been developed
17 alongside the emergence of a new and very diverse leadership (the president
is female, the secretary and treasurer are BME workers, the vice president
has a disability). Cardiff has also attempted to increase participation in
meetings by introducing workplace reports by delegates. More generally, the
decline in participation and activity has been stemmed.
There is a wide variation between trades union councils with higher and lower
levels of participation. There are important geographical differences with
participation being in general terms higher in areas where the trade union
movement has not been dominant i.e. South West, West, and South East
England. In terms of the affiliation of trades union council officers UNISON
members (35 per cent) were most active followed by AMICUS (28.4 per cent),
TGWU (23.5 per cent), PCS (19.4 per cent) and GMB (13.7 per cent). There
were similar trends in the leadership of trades union councils. UNISON,
TGWU and AMICUS provided 18.3 per cent of trades union council
secretaries followed by CWU (10.2 per cent) and PCS (6.8 per cent). AMICUS
provided 22.4 per cent of trades union council presidents followed by TGWU
(15.5 per cent) and UNISON (10.3 per cent). AMICUS provided 21.7 per cent
of trade union council treasurers followed by TGWU (15 per cent), UNISON
(13.3 per cent) and GMB (10 per cent) (see Appendix: Tables 2-4 and Figures
4-6). Participation in trades union councils can be measured by the number
of affiliates and the number of affiliated representatives attending trade union
council meetings (see Appendix: Figures 7 and 8). The main trend reported by
38.3 per cent of respondents was that there had been little change in the level
of affiliation over the past three years, although 31.7 per cent reported that
affiliation had increased a little and 8.3 per cent reported that it had increased
a lot. A majority therefore reported that affiliation levels had either improved or
stayed about the same. Conversely 20 per cent reported that affiliation had
decreased a little and 1.7 per cent that it had decreased a lot. The average
level of affiliations was 13 ranging from 2 (Ryde and East Wight) to 58
(Battersea and Wandsworth). A majority of the respondents reported that
attendance at trades union council meetings had increased during the past
three years with 11.7 per cent reporting that attendance had increased a lot
and 38.3 per cent reporting that attendance had increased a little. In contrast
31.1 per cent reported no change while 16.4 per cent reported a slight
decrease in participation and only 1.6 per cent reported a marked decrease in
participation. There was a slight increase in the average level of attendance at
trade union council meetings over the past three years: 8.5 delegates during
2003, 9.0 delegates during 2004 and 9.7 delegates during 2005 (see
Appendix: Figure 9); although it has to noted this is from a very low base.
Some of the principal factors accounting for the low level of participation in
trades union councils are the decline in workplace activism, the merger of
workplace branches and the under-affiliation of branches. The result has been
18 a decline in the number of individuals able or willing to represent their union
branch at the local trade union council. A representative in the North West
Industrial decline is the main problem in our area. Trade union
branches are not really functioning well and providing
delegates/affiliates as previously. Branch life needs reactivating as a
first step
This was highlighted in the case of Lincoln where low levels of activity were
related to the moribund nature of the branch structure of constituent unions
particularly AMICUS (MSF-AEEU) which had traditionally been dominant
within this trades union council owing to the prevalence of large engineering
plants in the city. In a context in which many branches have a high proportion
of retired members and branch officers have over-loaded workloads, trades
union council representation and activity tends to be ‘pushed to the bottom of
the pecking order’. This is compounded by the merger of branches and the
lack of attendance at branch meetings. This partly reflects a demographic shift
in that younger union members increasingly join the union for instrumental
reasons and younger shop stewards show little interest in getting involved in
either the branch or the trades union council. Further, unions are not referring
matters to the trades union council so when young people do get involved
they soon lose enthusiasm owing to the lack of activity. In Lincoln, the main
barrier to greater trades union council activity was presented as a lack of
enthusiasm amongst affiliated unions and not as a lack of resources - the
council budget was generally under spent.
Despite these problems trades union councils continue to be involved in
community campaigns on a broad range of issues. Respondents to the survey
were asked to rank the priority that their trades union council gives to activities
(See Appendix: Tables 5-7 and Figures 10-12). The results highlight the
importance attached to campaigning on local issues which was cited by 27.3
per cent of respondents as first priority and 26 per cent as second priority.
Supporting local trade unions in dispute was the first priority of 23.6 per cent
of respondents. Recruiting union members was the first priority of 10.9 per
cent. Trade union education was an important second (24 per cent) and third
(20.9 per cent) priority. Liaising with community groups was cited as first
priority by only 5.5 per cent but as second priority by 20 per cent and third
priority by 16.3 per cent. These priorities indicate that trades union councils
have been focused more on developing a wider set of activities around a
broad industrial and political agenda as opposed to focusing on the narrower
task of rebuilding membership levels either directly through recruitment
campaigns or indirectly through raising the profile of trade unions and trade
unionism in the local community. This analysis is supported by examining the
issues and resolutions passed at meetings and the focus of campaigns
19 established by trades union councils. A wide range of speakers were heard at
meetings, the most frequently addressed topics were the broader political
issues of opposing racism and fascism, defending public services and
opposing the war on Iraq. The importance given to these matters was also
reflected in the number of affiliations and donations to organisations actively
engaged in campaigning around these issues and this was also reinforced by
the frequency with which trades union councils developed joint working or
campaigning with these organisations. Below we outline the main focus of
trades union council campaigns and initiatives and provide examples of trades
union activities that address these themes. In the survey respondents were
asked to report on activities during the past three years, the activities reported
below therefore cover the period between 2003 and 2006. In contrast to
developments in the USA, it is notable that there are few examples of trades
union councils working in alliance with faith or religious groups and
movements. However, there are exceptional cases including Knowsley,
Burnley, Lancaster, and Blackpool.
Trades Union Council Campaigns
Union Recruitment
There are few examples of trades union councils either leading or supporting
recruitment campaigns. Significant exceptions include:•
Battersea and Wandsworth have an ‘organising centre’ and are currently
working on three ‘greenfield’ areas: ASDA store workers with the GMB,
Coral bookmakers with Community and CPS car parking attendants with
Ilfracombe supported the GMB in a recruitment drive in local factories and
plans to work with USDAW to recruit members at the new TESCO store in
the town.
Community Events
A majority of trades union councils (62 per cent) took part in various types of
community festivals and events and there are examples of trades union
councils sponsoring community organisations. Ulverston, for example,
sponsored a free rides day on a small railway in a local park during the school
holidays and made donations to a St John’s Ambulance uniform appeal. Other
community based events were more akin to celebrations of trade unionism
and workers’ rights. These included workers’ memorial day, town centre
exhibitions to educate the public on the role of trade unions, the Durham
Miners’ Gala and the Tolpuddle Festival. However, the majority of trades
union councils (67 per cent) did not organise a May Day Event. Amongst
20 those that did there were 5 demonstrations, 16 rallies, 10 public meetings and
10 social events.
Industrial Disputes
Supporting unions engaged in industrial disputes was a significant and
widespread activity. 58 per cent of trades union councils invited trade
unionists in dispute to address their meetings, 67 per cent made contributions
to strike funds, 49 per cent provided speakers to address rallies and public
meetings in support of workers in dispute and 79 per cent sent a delegation to
rallies, public meetings or picket lines. There was a particular focus on raising
awareness and money for workers involved in the Gate Gourmet dispute (see
EIRO 2005), the civil service dispute (see EIRO 2004) and the fire fighters
pay dispute (see EIRO 2002). A specific example of how support for industrial
action was linked to campaigning with community organisations was around
the issue of pensions. Northampton supported PCS strike action on civil
service pensions. This involved the organisation of meetings, attending a rally
in London, setting up a stall in the town centre and supporting and leafleting
the PCS picket line.
Pensions was an issue around which trades union councils were engaged in
campaigning more than any other and a matter on which they passed most
resolutions (along with the Iraq war). Notable examples included:
Northampton pursued a campaign on pensions working with the National
Pensioners Convention.
Bristol lobbied local councillors regarding the changes to the local
government pension scheme. It also had links with the Older People’s
Forum through which it pressed for free transport.
Cardiff supported the local government workers’ action over pensions and
held a public meeting on the theme of ‘Pensions not War’.
Public Services
The most widespread activity of trades union councils was around the
defence of public service provision and this appears to be in line with the main
priority of ‘campaigning around local issues’ and related to another priority of
‘liaising with community groups’. Most trades union council initiatives in this
field was in the form of activities around specific single issues, examples of
which are given below.
21 Education:
Burnley lobbied a local college against cuts to the adult education
programme and wrote letters to the press on the issue of changes to
school holidays.
Battersea and Wandsworth produced a report on affordable housing.
Darlington was part of a campaign to preserve local authority control of
social housing stock. This involved door knocking, public meetings,
meetings with residents’ associations.
Northampton was part of a campaign against the transfer of council
housing stock in Northampton. This involved writing letters, organising
meetings, lobbying elected representatives. Northampton subsequently
assisted campaigns in other parts of Northamptonshire.
Salisbury had a campaign of lobbying MPs and writing to local
newspapers and radio stations on the issue of defending council housing.
Waveney was part of campaign to retain social housing under local
authority control. This involved lobbying, mass leafleting, public meetings
and letters to local press.
Burnley was part of a campaign against the closure of a local hospital. The
campaign involved a rally, march and letter writing.
Rugby campaigned for a locally managed NHS primary care trust.
Salisbury had a campaign of lobbying MPs and writing to local
newspapers and radio stations on the issue of PFI in the NHS.
Ulverston and Barrow were both part of a successful campaign to
establish an asbestos awareness and support centre.
Winchester met regularly with the local NHS trust to discuss issues of
over-spending, staffing, job-losses and the selling off of NHS property.
Lewisham initiated a letter writing campaign to the local press on the issue
of rail privatisation.
22 •
Rugby campaigned for improvements to rail and bus station facilities,
improvements to Sunday/Bank holiday bus services, and the restriction of
traffic in the town centre.
Salisbury had a campaign of lobbying MPs and writing to local
newspapers and radio stations on the issue of rail re-nationalisation and
getting freight back on the rails.
Ulverston made successful representations to the local authority on
serious road problems associated with flooding and drainage.
In addition to campaigning on specific aspects of public services, a small
number of trades union councils also developed broader campaigns which
involved the construction of an alliance of unions and public service user
groups. For example, Northampton campaigned against privatisation, which
involved leafleting at a local balloon festival. It also supported the CWU
campaign against post office privatisation including participation in rallies and
leafleting and petitioning at post offices. It also opposed cuts in local public
services including nurseries and leisure centres. This involved the
construction of a coalition of user groups and unions such as UNISON as well
as organising public meetings, lobbying of MPs and councillors, and leafleting,
marches and rallies. Probably the most extensive inter-union cooperation was
seen in the Bristol ‘Keep Public Services Public’ and ‘Not for Private Profit’
campaigns. These were initiated in January 2006 by a resolution from a PCS
branch which called on the trades union council to participate in meetings of
local union representatives to coordinate the campaign. It was also given
impetus by the NUT’s campaign against academy schools which included a
call for a public demonstration. Following monthly organising meetings which
were held prior to trades union council meetings, a demonstration and rally
took place in April 2006 and mobilised approximately 300 people. The
demonstration was led by the banner of Bristol Trades Union Council with its
slogan of ‘Working Together in the Community’ which was followed by
banners from 10 different public service unions. The rally was opened by the
President of Bristol Trades Union Council and was addressed by speakers
from national, regional and local levels of public service unions as well as by
representatives of local campaigning bodies.
The role played by the BNP in the riots in Northern cities in 2001 as well as its
electoral strategy triggered a good deal of campaigning by trades union
councils. Some trades union councils in the North received additional
assistance from the TUC in the form of small grants. Anti-fascist activity
involved a lot of joint working with other local organisations as well as with
newly created national bodies such as Unite Against Fascism (UAF) which
23 received the most affiliations or donations from trades union councils of any
body. Specific examples of trades union councils anti-fascist activity include:
Battersea and Wandsworth developed a joint campaign with UAF against
the BNP.
Burnley distributed leaflets against the BNP.
Lewisham was involved in the organisation of three anti-racist May Day
events, public meetings and leafleting campaigns against the BNP.
Wolverhampton undertook leafleting, monitoring of activity and issuing
press releases on anti-fascism which it made one of the themes of its May
Day event. It was also involved in working with other local organisations to
arrange a ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’.
Rotherham formed Rotherham UAF. The group involved trade unions,
local political parties, and community and faith groups. This resulted in
public meetings, leafleting, letters to local newspapers, lobbying local
councillors and liaising with other trades union councils in the area.
Stockport founded Stockport Aagainst Racism and Fascism under the
direction of trades council officers, but also involving representatives of
local unions, campaigning bodies and political parties. The campaign was
directed against the BNP who fielded candidates in three wards in the
2004 local elections. The campaign involved advertisements in the local
press and a large-scale leafleting campaign.
Leeds made campaigning against racism and fascism a central part of its
activity. This seems due to BNP leader Nick Griffin standing for election in
nearby Keighley as well as him standing trial in Leeds. The trades union
council worked alongside UAF to mobilise large demonstrations outside
the court.
Cardiff joined the demonstration at the BBC studios in opposition to a party
political broadcast by the BNP.
The case of Oldham is an interesting and important example of the role of
trades union councils in the struggle against the BNP. Oldham was relaunched as a result of a local campaign against the BNP which involved its
forerunner (Oldham Trade Unions Against Racism and Fascism) working
closely with other local and national anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations.
Oldham trades union council only had a small number of affiliated branches
and its meetings were not particularly well attended. However, a small group
of active delegates focused its activities specifically on local campaigning
around racism, which involved organising public meetings, liaising with
community groups and participating in local bodies. Its anti-fascist activities
24 were concentrated mainly around the production and distribution of leaflets
opposing the BNP and press campaigning. The secretary was arrested for
opposing the disruption of the ‘Holocaust Memorial Day’ by the BNP. This
resulted in a defence campaign with local, national and international support
that was successful in ensuring that the charges against him were dropped.
More recent campaigning was hindered by the breakdown of collaborative
working with UAF.
A sizeable number of trades union councils discussed the question of ‘antidiscrimination’, approximately 30 per cent passed resolutions on the topic and
approximately 50 per cent engaged in ‘anti-discrimination’ campaigns.
Wolverhampton was particularly active around equality issues and sent
observers to the conferences of the Women’s TUC, Black Workers’ TUC, and
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender TUC. It was also affiliated to
campaigns supporting the rights of women and migrant workers. In particular,
it aided an anti-deportation campaign to gain support from the local labour
movement and invited a speaker to address the trades union council on the
subject of institutional racism. Other examples of activity by trades union
councils on equality included:
Bristol sent delegates to the Race Equality Council and participated in the
local ‘Respect’ festival.
Cardiff sent delegates to the Black Workers TUC conference and to the
Welsh TUC conference on Challenging Racism. It also began to campaign
in support of migrant workers and participated in rallies following attacks
on a local mosque.
An international dimension to trades union council activity was also prevalent
in many cases. This element of activity was dominated by the issue of the war
in Iraq. A majority of trades union councils discussed the war in Iraq and just
over half of these passed resolutions on it with even more being involved in
the campaign to oppose it. This led to the Stop the War Coalition being the
second most frequently invited group to address trades union council
delegates and the most mentioned organisation with which trades union
councils engaged in joint working and campaigning. Specific local activities
Cowes and District organised a demonstration and public meeting against
the war in Iraq.
25 •
Peterborough organised a march, public meetings and distributed leaflets
against the war.
Rugby distributed leaflets for the local Stop the War Coalition.
Watford organised meetings and protests against the war and lobbied MPs
and wrote letters to the press on this issue.
Wolverhampton coordinated the local campaign against the war and held
a public meeting on ‘Iraq, the Way Forward’ which was filmed and
There were links between trades union councils and international
organisations and campaigns. These included affiliations and joint campaigns.
Examples include:
Kingston, Rugby, Leeds, Bridgwater, Barnsley, Coventry, Rotherham,
North Staffordshire and Leicester were affiliated to, or made donations
to, Amnesty International.
Wolverhampton was affiliated to a wide range of international solidarity
organisations and invited speakers from Palestine, Venezuela and
Cuba Solidarity.
Numerous trades union councils were involved in the Make Poverty
History Campaign.
Trades Union Councils and Political Engagement
There has been a loosening of ties between the trade unions and their
traditional allies in the Labour Party. In places there were enduring personal
and institutional linkages between trades union councils and the Labour Party.
These were strongest in the ‘old labour’ heartlands of Northern England with
enduring linkages of personnel between trades union councils and local
Labour Parties. The linkages were weaker or had broken down completely
outside these heartland areas. In some places there had been a
fundamentally changed relationship between the trades union council and the
Labour Party. Owing to cynicism and disappointment with New Labour,
Northampton broke formal links with the Labour Party and moved its meeting
from the local Labour Club. This was not a sectarian dispute and there was no
apparent connection between this development and support for other parties
of the left. While this trades union council no longer had a channel of influence
via local councillors, it viewed this as an opportunity to develop new channels
and alliances. With regard to the relationship between trades union councils
and local elected politicians, only 46 per cent of trades union councils had
regular meetings with elected representatives. Within those holding regular
meetings, 26 per cent had meetings with New Labour representatives, 4.9 per
26 cent had meetings with Conservative Party representatives and 13 per cent
had meetings with representatives from more than one political party.
Regarding involvement in local elections, only 43 per cent of trades union
councils participated in local election campaigns. In areas where the BNP was
active, the main political objective of trades union councils was increasingly
resistance against the BNP rather than active support for the Labour Party. In
relation to participation in local institutional bodies, some 36 per cent of trades
union councils had representatives on Local Strategic Partnerships. There
were also examples of trades union councils sending representatives to
bodies such as: ‘Patient Forum’ (NHS), Racial Equality Councils,
Regeneration and Tourism Advisory Group, Airport Consultative Committee,
Business Health Advisory Group, Further Education Forum.
The Problems of Organising Trades Union Councils
Respondents to the survey highlighted a series of issues and problems that
undermine the effectiveness of trades union councils. The main problems
cited by respondents were the under-affiliation by local branches and the
under-participation of local delegates. The main source of these problems
were seen by many activists to be related to the decline of workplace
branches, resulting in a lack of knowledge about the role of trades union
councils and a lack of delegates and motions forwarded to trades union
councils. This decline has been exacerbated by union mergers as one
respondent noted:
Mergers of unions have not helped trades union councils as some
branches have disappeared and delegates are not therefore replaced
to the detriment of trades union councils. The problem needs to be
addressed nationally if we are to survive.
For one respondent the answer to this problem lay in mandatory affiliation:
Trade union branches are dying. They can’t find people to be delegates
to local trades union councils. Trade unions should have a rule that their
local branches are affiliated to their local trades union council.
Other significant problems cited were the lack of funding for trades union
council activities and the related problem of the over-work of executive
officials (see Appendix: Figure 13). The problem of resources is, however,
variable and uneven. Leeds, for example, owns its own premises, which are
open to trade union branches, campaigns and community organisations to
hold meetings and acts as a resource centre for unions and community
bodies within the city. It has also benefited from several development grants
and from close cooperation with the TUC at the regional level. Battersea and
Wandsworth is unique in having an income stream from the Workers’ Beer
27 Company and this is used to support other trades union councils in the vicinity
including Lambeth, Croydon, and Merton and Sutton.
Other problems highlighted were of a more overtly political nature. Some
respondents suggested that unions in the private sector are resistant to
getting involved in trades union councils as they are seen as too ‘political’ or
dominated by left-wing activists. There is also evidence of long standing
enmities between trades union councils and the TUC hierarchy and a feeling
that the latter have either no commitment to maintaining trades union councils
or would prefer to see their demise. This outlook was exemplified by the
following comments made by respondents during the interviews:
Some trade union full-time officials want to kill off local trades union
councils; they see us as a threat. The regional secretary has no time for
We find that the TUC both nationally and regionally do not want trades
councils, we are a thorn in their side and they would rather we were not
there, they do nothing to generate support for local trades union
There was a perception that the TUC wants to keep trades councils at a
distance, although as one respondent noted maybe trades union councils
would not be doing their job properly if this were not the case. This was not,
however, reflected in a perceived poor relationship between trades union
councils and regions of the TUC with over 70 per cent of respondents
reporting no problem in this relationship. Over 50 per cent of respondents
believed there to be no problem in the relationship between trades union
councils and the national TUC. There was, therefore, a degree of
ambivalence with regard to the relationship between trades union councils
and the TUC. Only 28 per cent of respondents were aware of the TUC’s
‘community unionism’ project and only 10 per cent had participated in its
development. There was a feeling that the initiative ‘does not involve trades
union councils’.
Conclusion: Trades Union Councils and the Development of
‘Community Unionism’.
To what extent do trades union councils have a role to play in the construction
of effective ‘community unionism’ in the UK? In order to answer this question
we need to consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of the strategy of
‘community unionism’. The interest in ‘community unionism’ has developed in
the context of a decline of trades union council power and effectiveness and
the attempt to emulate the organising model that has developed in the USA.
In the USA, the organising model has involved the encouragement of
‘community unionism’ and this has involved both the reactivation of CLCs and
28 the development of alliances between individual unions and community and
faith groups. In the UK, however, the emulation of the US model has tended
to focus on the latter tendency rather than the former. The efforts of individual
unions to build community alliances such as the ‘Living Wage Campaign’
developed by London Citizens are positive developments that have delivered
important benefits to marginalised workers. These community unionism
campaigns have demonstrated the benefits of ‘community unionism’ in raising
the moral legitimacy of union demands and thereby suggest the rekindling of
the ‘sword of justice’ role of trade unions. However, even their most ardent
supporters have acknowledged that they have been limited to expressing an
‘agonised liberalism’ (Wills 2006) which appeals to the moral conscience of
business and political elites without mobilising the material or political power
to enforce their aims. Moreover, these initiatives have largely taken the form
of single issue campaigns. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that such forms of
‘community unionism’ will cohere into an effective organisation/movement that
is capable of resisting the array of social, economic and political impacts that
result from neo-liberal globalisation.
In contrast, trades union councils provide an organic link to workplace
organisations and link trade unionists across a range of sectors and industries
thereby connecting workers and unions across a diverse range of problems
and issues. As we demonstrated above, trades union councils have been
involved in campaigns and political action on issues such as public services,
anti-fascism and pensions that articulate the demands and interests of
workers across different workplaces and sectors. This is particularly important
in the context of the fragmenting and individualising tendencies underpinning
neo-liberal restructuring. Furthermore, trades union councils are steeped in an
ideology that presents labour as a social and political movement and this also
contributes to their capacity to develop a coherent ideology of labour. These
factors make trades union councils a potentially effective vehicle for redrawing
a virtuous circle between the ‘sword of justice’ and ‘vested interest’ roles of
trade unionism. This analysis suggests that trades union councils have the
(currently unrealised) potential to go beyond the role proposed for them as
providers of community support to union recruitment drives (Wills 2002) to
make a major contribution to the revitalisation of trade unionism as a social
and political movement.
To what extent, however, is the model of ‘community unionism’ that has been
developed in the USA relevant or applicable in the UK context? This question
is tied up with the issue of globalisation. The impact of globalisation intensifies
rather than weakens the importance of place. Globalisation involves the
transformation of localities rather than a simple increase in mobilities (Morley
2000: 14) or the experience of displacement in the same place (Tomlinson
1999). In this context, the maintenance of an independent and critical trade
29 unionism capable of resisting or shaping these processes of displacement
would seem to rest on the revitalisation of ‘community unionism’. Given the
enduring importance of place and the variability of the ways in which
globalisation is impacting across space we should be wary of importing
models of ‘community unionism’ from different social, political and economic
contexts. A useful model for investigating this issue is provided by Robinson
(2000) in his analysis of social movement unionism (SMU) in the USA.
Community organising and building linkages between trade unions and other
social and ‘citizenship’ movements is an important component of SMU.
Robinson differentiates between business unionism and SMU on the basis of
whether membership and involvement are voluntary or involuntary, whether
unions are autonomous or subordinated to political parties, the state or
employers, whether the constituency represented by the union is inclusive or
exclusive and whether trade union leaders are critical or uncritical of existing
economic and political institutions. An assessment of trade union reorientation
along these dimensions has led Robinson to argue that neo-liberal
restructuring has been pushing US trade unions from the dominant ‘business
unionism’ model towards SMU. This is related to the way in which an adverse
political and economic environment has translated into a more critical
leadership culture and has demonstrated the declining utility of existing
strategies. These developments have further resulted in a change in the
gender and ethnic composition of union membership and have demonstrated
the viability of alternative models of trade unionism. In the UK the dominant
trajectory towards SMU is from a form of social democratic trade unionism
which is based on a more inclusive representation than business unionism,
but which has been subordinated to the wider political objectives of the
Labour Party (see Hyman 2001). Clearly, there are a different set of
opportunities and barriers to the development of SMU in the UK in
comparison with the USA.
Our survey demonstrated that in some places (mainly but not exclusively in
the North of England) the linkages between trades union councils and local
labour parties and politicians have endured the institutional distancing
between New Labour and the trade union movement. We would like to raise
the question as to whether it is a coincidence that the most active trades
union councils tend to be where linkages with the Labour Party have broken
down or where the linkages were not developed historically. This again
highlights the possibilities and dangers associated with ‘community unionism’.
The de-linking of trade unions and the Labour Party highlights the danger that
trade union community politics could develop into forms of union-community
alliance that lack an ideology of labour or indeed any political ideology at all.
Neither this type of ‘community unionism’ nor one that clings to the Labour
Party-Trade Union linkage regardless of whether it delivers substantive gains
30 would appear to promise an effective template for effective ‘community
A further question concerns the extent to which trade union councils are
prevented from becoming effective vehicles of community unionism as a
result of the political legacies of their history. The review of trades union
council history highlighted the extent to which changes in the economic and
political milieu associated with the development and crisis of Fordism and
Keynesianism provides only a partial explanation for the ebb and flow of
trades union council fortunes. During the 20th century, the labour movement in
Britain did indeed go through a marked process of centralisation and
bureaucratisation and this certainly contributed towards the marginalisation of
local trades union councils. However, this marginalisation was not just a
product of a rescaling of labour movement politics. In the context of
Bolshevism and the Cold War trades councils represented an important forum
in the struggle between the revolutionary and reformist left in the British labour
movement. During this period, trades councils endured as a movement in
civil society at a time when the legitimacy of workplace trade unionism was
being undermined by bureaucratic centralism (Offe and Wiesenthall 1985)
and Keynesian state planning was resulting in the ‘statisation of civil society’
(Panitch 1986: 189) or what Poulantzas (1978) termed the ‘statisation of
social life’. These were the elements of the post-war social democratic
consensus that were attacked most ferociously by Thatcherism. Trades union
councils are thus an important bridge linking the demobilised and
marginalised trade unions of today with the existence of trade unionism as a
vibrant movement of civil society during the 19th century and early 20th
century. In the context of the decline of the Communist Party, whose influence
on trades union councils was significant but never decisive, alongside the
growing institutional separation of the Labour Party from the trade union
movement, trades union councils would seem to provide an opportunity for
the reconstruction of trade unionism as a movement in civil society that is
capable of reuniting the ‘sword of justice’ and ‘vested interest’ roles of trade
To what extent, therefore, are there signs that trades union councils are
reversing decades of decline and realising their potential to re-emerge as a
‘social’ movement of labour? The survey data suggests that after a
considerable period of decline there has been a modest upturn in affiliation
and membership. Where trades union councils remain active, there is also
evidence of activities and campaigns across a wide range of issues and
problems. The campaigns around the defence of pensions and public services
were around the kind of ‘unifying class themes’ which can form the basis for
‘an ideological alternative for the labor movement’ (Gapasin and Yates op cit:
60). There were, however, few examples of campaigns on the issue of low
31 pay, which could also be usefully addressed given the way that the CLCs and
Jobs with Justice have successfully exploited this issue in the USA. In
addition, trades union councils have campaigned around international
questions and in opposition to discrimination and fascism. These are the kind
of issues that are of concern to young people who have engaged in the rise of
extra-parliamentary protests in recent years, without necessarily associating
themselves with, or being engaged in, trade unions. This suggests an
important point of contact with a generation which has largely been lost to the
labour movement. This kind of activity could be extended to include the
question of the environment, which is probably the least developed area of
campaigning and arguably the most likely to encourage the participation and
support of younger members and delegates. However, of perhaps more
fundamental importance is the potential role that trades union councils could
play, and do indeed wish to play, in educating young people about trade
unions and trade unionism.
The activity of trades union councils around supporting industrial disputes
alongside their campaigning around the kind of issues mentioned above
suggests that they are indeed oriented around both the ‘vested interest’ and
‘sword of justice’ roles and that there is no need for any fundamental
reorientation in order to begin to their revitalisation. The main problem,
however, lies in the small scale of such activity where, even in the case of
councils with a higher level of attendance such as Bristol, participation
remains extremely limited. The results of the survey demonstrate the uphill
climb that needs to be undertaken in order to revitalise trades union councils.
The immediate obstacle is the number of trades union councils and County
Associations that have become defunct. This has occurred not just in remote
or rural areas, but also in large industrial cities such as Nottingham. There
are, however, financial resources connected to these defunct institutions that
could be utilised by active trades union councils or neighbouring trades union
councils in an attempt to bring these defunct councils back to life. However, it
is questionable whether sufficient resources are currently available to achieve
significant success. Moreover, the exemplary case of Battersea and
Wandsworth demonstrates clearly the level of resources required to achieve
full scale revitalisation. The solution to adequately resourcing trades union
councils and addressing the question of under-participation seems to lie not
only with the TUC, but also with its constituent unions. Currently, it is left to
individual union branches to take the initiative in affiliating to trades union
councils and this undoubtedly has a major effect on both resourcing and
participation. One way to address these problems would be to make affiliation
mandatory: a call which has also been made in relation to CLCs in the USA.
Such a measure might be opposed on the grounds of cost to individual unions
that are already hard pressed financially. Therefore, mandatory affiliation
could be accompanied by a significant reduction in affiliation fees.
32 Increasing the level of resources through increases in branch affiliations could
also have the desirable effect of increasing participation in trades union
councils by lay officials as well as by branch activists. This matter of union
commitment to trades union councils is of importance in that there remains an
enduring perception that trades union councils are mistrusted by the trade
union hierarchy, particularly by the TUC, and by the full time officials of
affiliated unions. We are not in a position to say whether this perception is true
especially as the evidence on this matter in our survey was equivocal, but the
TUC and full-time union officials could go a long way to dispel such
perceptions encouraging the affiliation of union branches to local trades union
councils and by fully involving trades union councils in national debates and
initiatives on ‘community unionism’.
Increasing resources and the commitment of unions to trades union councils
are important but not sufficient measures to ensure their revitalisation. Some
problems are more serious and the solutions less obvious. The decline of the
branch networks within affiliated unions and the increasingly instrumental and
individualised orientation of rank-and-file trade unionists reflect deeper and
more fundamental trends in the nature of contemporary society. We can only
suggest that alongside their role in campaigning around issues of general
interest, trades union councils can also have a part to play in the specific
recruitment initiatives undertaken by individual unions and encourage
collectivist sentiments and solutions through public education campaigns.
There is, moreover, the enduring problem of an ageing and narrow
demographic profile in relation to the leadership and membership of trades
union councils. In common with developments in the USA, we have also seen
in the UK how the formation of a younger and more diverse leadership can
transform levels of affiliation and activity in particular trades union councils.
We have also noted the difficulty that unions face in getting activists to attend
the trades union councils and in maintaining enthusiasm amongst the few
delegates that attend. The contemporary trade union movement is a product
of a century of centralisation and bureaucratisation and this is reflected in the
organisational procedures of trades union councils. This suggests that the
ways in which meetings and events are organised are reviewed in order to
produce a new vibrancy to the conduct of trades union councils. The idea of
workplace reports practiced by Wolverhampton and Cardiff could prove to be
a useful way of increasing the participation of delegates.
There is, therefore, scope for the renewal of trades union councils where the
enthusiasm and vision of younger and more diverse leadership can be
combined with a commitment to organisational change. In the absence of
these changes, and in the context of the ageing and narrow demographic of
trades union council leaderships and delegates, the future of trades union
councils is indeed bleak. There are few examples of significant community
33 campaigns outside the trades union councils and there are important historical
and political factors that are likely to block the straightforward transplantation
of the US model of community organising into the UK. The future of trades
union councils ultimately rests on a political decision as to whether trade
unions are, or should be, part of a broader movement for progressive social
change. In the context of weakening ties between trade unions and the
Labour Party, an affirmative answer to this question implies the building of
solidarity between trade unions and the development of union-community
links. In the current context, trades union councils are the only organisations
capable of fulfilling this role. In this context, and in conclusion, it would seem
worthwhile to consider a process of institutional reorientation and restructuring
that gave priority to reactivating defunct trades councils and reinvigorating
those that remain.
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40 Appendix: Results of Postal Questionnaire Frequency Percent Valid Percent Cumulativ
e Percent Midlands 9 14.8 14.8 14.8 Northern 7 11.5 11.5 26.2 10 16.4 16.4 42.6 16 26.2 26.2 68.9 12 19.7 19.7 88.5 Wales 3 4.9 4.9 93.4 Yorkshire and Humberside 4 6.6 6.6 100.0 61 100.0 100.0 North West Southern and Eastern South West Total Table 1: Breakdown of responses by region: 41 50.0%
Age of Secretary
Figure 1: Age breakdown of Trades Union Council secretaries 100.0%
Gender of Secretary
Figure 2: Gender Profile of Trades Union Council secretary 42 100.0%
White UK
White Other
Ethnicity of Secretary
Figure 3: Ethnicity of Trades Union Council Secretary Union of Secretary
Valid Percent
Table 2: Union Affiliation of Trades Union Council Secretary 43 Union of Secretary
Figure 4: Union Affiliation of Trades Union Council Secretary Union of President
Valid Percent
Musicians Union
Table 3: Union Affiliation of Trades Union Council President
44 Union of President
Musicians Union
Figure 5: Union Affiliation of Trades Union Council President Union of Treasurer
Valid Percent
Table 4: Union Affiliation of Trades Union Council Treasurer
45 Union of Treasurer
Figure 6: Union Affiliation of Trades Union Council Treasurer
Increased a lot
Increased a bit
Stayed about the
Decreased a bit
Decreased a lot
Level of affiliation in past three years
Figure 7: Changes in Level of affiliation in last three years
46 40.0%
Increased a lot
Increased a bit
Stayed about the
Decreased a bit
Decreased a lot
Level of participation in last three years
Figure 8: Changes in Level of participation in last three years
Attendance at TUC Meetings in
Attendance at TUC Meetings in
Attendance at TUC Meetings in
Figure 9: Changes in attendance at meetings in last three years
47 First priority of TUCs
Recruiting Union
Trade union education
Liasing with
community groups
National Health Service
Local Strategic
Increasing TUC
Supporting unions in
May Day event
Protecting local jobs
Campaigning on local
Valid Percent
No answer
Table 5: First Priority of Trades Union Councils
First priority of TUCs
Recruiting Union
Trade union education
Liasing with community
National Health Service
Local Strategic
Increasing TUC affiliation
Campaigning on local
anti-racism/fighting BNP
Supporting unions in
May Day event
Protecting local jobs
Figure 10: First Priority of Trades Union Councilss 48 Second priority of TUCs
Valid Percent
Recruiting Union
Trade union education
Liasing with
community groups
National Health Service
Local Strategic
Increasing TUC
Campaigning on local
Supporting unions in
May Day event
Protecting local jobs
No answer
Table 6: Second priority of Trades Union Councils Second priority of TUCs
Recruiting Union
Trade union education
Liasing with community
National Health Service
Local Strategic
Increasing TUC affiliation
Campaigning on local
anti-racism/fighting BNP
Supporting unions in
May Day event
Protecting local jobs
Figure 11: Second priority of Trades Union Councils 49 Third priority of TUCs
Valid Percent
Low Pay
Recruiting Union
Trade union education
Liasing with
community groups
Local Strategic
Campaigning on local
Liasing with local
May Day event
International Issues
Public transport
No answer
Table 7: Third Priority of Trades Union Councils
Third priority of TUCs
Low Pay
Recruiting Union
Trade union education
Liasing with community
Local Strategic
Campaigning on local
anti-racism/fighting BNP
Liasing with local
May Day event
International Issues
Public transport
Figure 12: Third priority of Trades Union Councils 50 Speaker at
TUC meeting Affiliation or
donation Joint Working or
campaigning Amnesty International 1 10 2 Campaign to Defend
Asylum Seekers 7 5 6 Campaign to Defend
Council Housing 19 17 19 Citizens Advice Bureau 3 4 7 Commission for Racial
Equality 5 5 4 Faith-Based
Organizations 3 3 5 Friends of the Earth 0 0 3 Keep Our NHS Public 8 10 18 Make Poverty History 9 9 13 Stop the War Coalition 11 16 21 Unite Against Fascism 9 25 16 Table 8: Percentages of Issues, Resolutions and Campaigns pursued by
Trades Union Councils 51 4.00
Problem: under- Problem: under- Problem: poor Problem: Poor Problem: Poor
Probelm: Lack Problem: Lack of
participation by relationship with relationship with relationship with
affiliation by
overwork of
of Funding
local Labour
national TUC
exective officials local branches local delegates regional TUC
Figure 13: Main problems facing Trade Union Councils 52 
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