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Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Friday, September 02, 2016

Union mergers and industrial logic.

News this week has included the decision of members of media union, BECTU to merge into the (former) civil service union, Prospect. Among the consequences of this are that BECTU’s affiliation to the Labour Party will end.
BECTU’s annual return to the Certification Officer for last year records a paying membership of a little over 26,000 and assets of £5.5 million (but liabilities of over £7 million the great bulk of which is a pension fund deficit). The membership figure is remarkably steady in annual returns going back to 2003, although the financial liabilities associated with the pension scheme seem to have got worse over the years. The annual return for Prospect records 104,965 members, so it is pretty clear that this is a defensive merger driven by concerns about the long term viability of the smaller organisation.
There is precious little indication of any industrial logic to this merger, but then industrial logic has little to do with the structure of our movement in the twenty first century.
The structure of the UK trade union movement has never been particularly rational from the point of view of organising the working class, with successive layers of unions emerging over time. Craft unions (representing the particular interests of skilled workers with particular “trades”) developed from the mid-nineteenth century (the most noteworthy being the former Amalgamated Engineering Union, now part of UNITE) and were joined by general unions of the semi-skilled and unskilled workers from the 1880s onwards (including the forerunners of the GMB and of the TGWU – now also part of UNITE).
Industrial unionism (the organisation of all workers in a particular industry in one union) is a development associated with the syndicalism of the early twentieth century (and the RMT is the most significant product of that period today, albeit it exists alongside a craft union, ASLEF), but the public sector trade unions that grew with the public sector in the twentieth century also have certain characteristics of industrial unions.
UNISON’s rules maintain that we aspire to be an “industrial union” for all public services, but the reality of organising a fragmented workforce into a union which recruits the majority of new members online is that we are drifting towards being a general union, as both the GMB and UNITE already are.
Those groups of workers who are fortunate enough to have trade unions dedicated to their particular interests (such as teachers and firefighters for example) will not easily be tempted (other than by a financial crisis of their existing organisations) into joining the giant trade unions which increasing dominate our movement numerically, but those giants cannot be disaggregated (and are too large and jealous of each other usefully to be brought together) so we won’t get a rational structure for our trade union movement for the foreseeable future.
BECTU won’t however be the last of the movement’s (relative) minnows to be swallowed by a bigger fish.

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