Behind all the headlines of the forthcoming Royal Wedding and of Ireland’s ignominious financial collapse, there was an election for the new General Secretary of Unite, the UK’s leading trade union with 1.4 million members. The official winner was Len McCluskey, but the real winner was apathy. Just 16% of Unite’s membership actually voted, with the winner securing a measly 7% of the total membership’s vote.
It is well known that trade unions have had difficulty in organising valid ballots – think of the shambles relating to recent strike votes at British Airways. But a 16% turn-out for such a key trade union post is woeful.
How has trade unionism come to his? After all – allowing for amalgamations – McCluskey’s predecessors include such household names as Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon. Compared with the 1970s when the trade union movement exuded power, it is now marginalised. Like rusty seaside piers, it seems part of history.
Unquestionably, the major contraction of UK manufacturing industry has greatly reduced trade union membership. Furthermore, as the UK faced seemingly endless strikes – remember British Leyland at Longbridge and Ford at Halewood – in the 1970s, the election of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979 had a massive impact on trade unions.
Various Acts in the 1980s severely curbed their activities and materially changed their legal liabilities. Clearly, with heavy job losses now certain in the public sector, there will be widespread trade union action.
But it is in the pensions field where trade union officials, with the right expertise, could add so much. Millions of employees have precious little idea of their pension options and entitlements – explaining them in clear language would be so very beneficial and, rather than agitating for strike action and mass protest, union reps could play a valuable role in helping their members navigate the complex tax and pensions systems. John Foster Dulles famously asked if Britain had a role once it had lost its empire – do the trade unions now have one?