Workers' Liberty #56


Labour, the unions and the myth of social partnership

Tom Willis reports

Two years on from Labour's election landslide, we now need to take stock of how the relationship between the Blair Government and the trade union leadership is developing.

Both sides have delivered their side of the bargain. Blair has made a few cosmetic changes to the Thatcherite legacy and the union leaders have done everything in their power to stop their members pressing for real change.

Workers' Liberty has covered the Employment Relation Bill in some detail so it's only necessary to stress the following about Labour's new settlement:

That this half-digested Tory crumb can be held up as a serious achievement by the trade union leaders only tells us how degenerate they are. But the Employment Relations Bill really is all they've got from Blair apart from some small changes to the check-off regulations. Other items on the TUC wish list, like the right of union safety reps to issue improvement notices an a legal right to time off for all workers to undertake lifelong learning, have been indefinitely postponed by New Labour in the interests of not over-burdening small businesses with too many regulations.

So, with any serious changes to the profoundly anti-trade union framework of UK law ruled out and a minimum wage set at less than Mrs Blair spends at the hairdresser, the union leaders have to make do with the intangible - soundbites and more soundbites.

A recent TUC conference on "social partnership" gave us the spectacle of Tony Blair lecturing the trade union movement on the "meaningless" annual pay round and warning unions that the TUC's concept of "social partnership" must not be "used" as a disguise, either to get your foot in the door and start rowing about recruitment or to go back to your old behaviour of the bad old days of the 1960s and '70s.

In return for listening to the Prime Minister upbraid them the TUC leaders got a 5 million grant to promote "partnership" in the workforce. This 5 million is to be matched by a further 5 million from the employers so that the TUC can help employers implement minimum standards in the workplace, with the emphasis on the word minimum.

All talk of social partnership is based on the illusion that bosses and workers have common interests and their relationship is built on mutual co-operation not the exploitation of wage labour by capital. But what is distinctive about New Labour and the TUC's notion of social partnership is that, unlike continental models, it is not based on a minimum of trade union independence and a pluralist notion of collective bargaining. Instead the social partnership that Monks and Blair want is premised on an erosion of collective bargaining and Thatcher's anti-union laws. It is a form of "partnership" ideology that threatens to lead to a degeneration of trade unionism below even that of business unionism in the US. Though union membership in the US is half that of the UK the level of militancy expressed through strikes is much greater.

If you want proof of how far the TUC leadership are prepared to go then just listen to John Monks' reply to Blair on the annual wage norms: "We recognise that we don't deliver secure employment or rewarding jobs by having nothing more than an annual argument with employers about pay... Collective bargaining yes, but matched to a commitment to joint problem solving across training, skills and career development."

Meanwhile, outside Congress House and in the real world...

John Monks has two advantages over the other trade union bureaucrats:

  1. He is not elected, and, as a result...

  2. He has no industrial membership to keep happy by delivering improvements in their wages and conditions.

The problem for people like Bill Morris, John Edmonds, Rodney Bickerstaffe and the other key bureaucrats is that they actually have to lead unions and attempt to secure gains for their members. Yet the Government is attacking their members' wages and conditions through intimidation like PFI, Best Value and its support for continued privatisation and de-regulation.

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