Last year, the UK economy lost an estimated 2.52 million working days, as postal workers, nurses, railworkers and others went on strike to resist real-term pay cuts and defend the essential services we all depend on.
Long absent from both the media and public awareness, trade unions were suddenly news again.
Yet this was very far from being an historic high.
Indeed, as Holgate points out, 23.9mn working days were lost in 1972 (mainly due to a strike by coalminers) and 29.5mn in 1979 (during the so-called ‘winter of discontent’).
And the proportion of UK employees who are members of a trade union has fallen dramatically since the late 1970s: from 58.3 percent in 1979 to 23.1 percent in 2021 and 22.3 percent in 2022 – the lowest rate on record since 1995.
This important and engaging book tackles three big questions: ‘[W]hat strategically, if anything, are unions trying to achieve alongside membership growth, why has organising in the UK not succeeded in revitalising unions, and does unionism in the twenty-first century require a fundamental rethink about the structure and strategy of trade union organising?’
Its core consists of a rapid survey of the last 140 years of UK trade union history, from the ‘gig economy’ of the 1880s to today.
After all, Holgate notes, in the 1880s, ‘in conditions far more adverse than those we face today, working-class communities were able to initiate a process of widespread unionisation… among some of the most precarious of workers – particularly migrants and day labourers’, winning victories that ‘improv[ed] the future lives of millions of workers’.
Most of the survey, however, focuses on the post-war period, from the grassroots shop stewards’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s to the steady decline of union power from the mid-’70s, the planned ‘breaking’ of the unions under Thatcher, and the desperate retreat to a ‘service’ model (‘where things are done for the membership… in contrast to the organising model where members are encouraged to find solutions by themselves’) in the ’80s and ’90s.
This shift led to a so-called ‘turn to organising’ at the end of the ’90s and the creation of an ‘Organising Academy’ by the Trades Union Congress (the umbrella group for most of the unions in England and Wales) in 1998.
However, as Holgate explains (writing in 2020), the ‘turn’ became ‘largely instrumentalist’, focussed on ‘increasing membership’ rather than building collective power, with the role of members becoming ‘increasingly passive and transactional’.
These sections are leavened by a wide range of fascinating examples. A combination of union and community organising made Battersea into a beacon of ‘municipal socialism’ in the late 19th century, leading to the first council estate in Britain built by a council’s own workforce, the council providing its own cheaper electricity supply and concessions on tram fares for the local workforce.
The Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, thinking outside-the-box, held a ‘work-in’ occupation in 1971, following a decision to close their shipyards. ‘[R]eceiving backing, to an extent never before given to an unofficial action, from every section of the Labour movement, from nearly every political party, and from many broader-based sections of the community’, including Church leaders, the Clyde shipbuilders were able to draw on a wide range of sources of power – including international solidarity – to win, which they did in less than eight months.
The GMB’s organising drive in Southall in West London, in the late 1990s – early 2000s, led to 10,000 new Asian members over a five-year period, winning union recognition in twenty local workplaces. Highlighting the innovative and culturally-attuned approach taken, Holgate quotes one (white) senior organiser as saying: ‘The two Asian organisers both live in Southall. Zaheer will sometimes disappear for a couple of months and come back with 200 membership forms in his hand from some firm that we have never heard of. When you ask him how did it go – he said it was all done in front rooms, which is a different way of organising. We would never really dream of knocking on people’s doors.’
The book’s central theme – and the lens through which it views this history – is power.
Holgate defines power using a formulation attributed to Martin Luther King: the ability to force your opponent – here, an employer – ‘to say “yes” when they wanted to say “no”.’
Recognising that there are many sources of power, she provides a useful, if somewhat word-heavy, way to classify – and thereby think about – these: associational power (‘the capacity of union members and their leaders to act collectively’), discursive power (the ability to frame your claims in ways that resonate with wider circles of people – used to great effect by the Clyde shipbuilders), institutional power (the capacity to use laws and regulations to achieve your ends) and so on.
Consistent with her belief that ‘understanding on the part of workers the nature of different power resources (and their interaction) is essential for trade union strategising’, Holgate provides plenty of real-world examples.
For example, in 2015, almost 400 home care workers in Birmingham, employed by a local Labour-controlled council, faced substantial cuts in their wages.
‘Realis[ing] the strikes weren’t sufficiently effective and the collective power of the workers wasn’t proving enough to force the council to back down,’ the home care workers shifted their strategy, targeting three top council leaders, taking action to threaten them with the loss of their seats at the next election.
‘The community was activated through a letter-writing campaign’, over 100,000 leaflets were delivered to councillors’ constituents, and a savvy social media campaign was orchestrated to embarrass the council leader and his cabinet.
Political and moral power were successfully used to win, when the workers’ industrial power, on its own, wasn’t enough.
Likewise, drawing on historical examples (for example, the more than 18mn days lost to industrial action between 1915 – 1919, notwithstanding draconian laws outlawing strike action in war industries), Holgate notes that ‘legislation need not necessarily impede industrial action’.
In what may be the book’s most important sentence, Holgate notes that: ‘If the union movement is strong and workers have confidence, then it matters little what rules or regulations are in place – institutional power is never a match for organised workers’ power’.
Longtime PN readers will, of course, recognise here a core tenet of the theory and practice of civil resistance and mass nonviolent action.
In her final chapter, Holgate draws lessons for the future, arguing – to my mind persuasively – that what are needed are ‘an alternative vision which at its heart is building the capacity of workers to increase their collective control over the conditions and rewards for their labour… [and] a renewed role for trade unions to reconnect with the communities in which their members live’.
To this end, ‘leadership, vision, diversity and participatory democracy are all essential elements in creating a vibrant union that has the confidence to be led by its members’, since ‘transformative wins are not something that can be delivered by staff, they can only be won by the members themselves.’
On the community side, Holgate cites the Unite union’s ‘Unite Community’ scheme, which at the time of writing had some 50 community branches involved in a wide range of activities, from setting up peer support groups to help benefit claimants facing sanctions, to resisting the sell-off of social housing and supporting local food banks.
Though ‘too small and under-resourced to be truly transformative’, she writes, ‘it does illustrate the potential for unions to expand their remit and to draw in people from diverse backgrounds and constituencies.’
Likewise, ‘a transformational union vision [on climate change]’ – at present most notable by its absence – ‘would be one that connected young people concerned about climate change with the union movement.’
Currently, she notes, only 4.4 percent of UK union members are under 25.
Though slightly academic in places, this is a clearly-written and deeply-informed book on a topic that should be a central concern to all activists and campaigners.
I, for one, certainly feel better-informed having read it. And it’s reinforced my sense that active community support for the doctors, teachers, railworkers and other workers... (as opposed to passive support, registered in polling), largely untapped so far, could have been – and still could be – a significant source of power in the current struggles.