The British Disease?

[Note: for reasons of length, this post has been split from the commentary which originally accompanied it; a link to the commentary is published at the bottom]

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) published their annual bulletin [pdf] on UK trade union membership in May 2013, revealing that although union membership has fallen dramatically since its peak in 1979, last year the number of unionized workers rose slightly for the first time in a decade. The overall trend during the last three decades reflects the effects of recessions, fluctuations in unemployment, the introduction of neoliberal policies, and a more general economic shift away from large-scale manufacturing. In 1995, for example, the manufacturing industry still had the highest levels of union membership (1.4m members, followed by health and social work [1.2m], then education [1.1m]), but this had slumped to a third of those numbers in 2012. Whilst there have been increased numbers of unionized employees in other growth areas of the private sector – real-estate (which has almost tripled), wholesale and retail trade, and the professional, scientific and technical industries – membership density remains relatively low (between 9-13% of the workforce in those industries mentioned and an average of 14.4% across the private sector). In contrast, public administration and defence has the highest membership density of all industries (52.2%), although numbers have dropped since 2008 (from 1.1m to 0.9m).

What is most interesting about the figures is how they paint a picture of the typical trade union member today: they are increasingly likely to be female (of a workforce now composed of men and women in almost equal measure, 29% of female employees – 3.5m women – belong to a union compared to 23% (2.9m) of male employees), aged 35 and over (77% of all union members), in full-time work (78% of all union members) in the public sector (40% of union members are female public-sector workers, 25% male private-sector workers, 20% male public-sector workers, 15% female private-sector workers). Specifically, she will most likely work in education: in 2012, those working in education accounted for the highest number of union members (1.54m or 24%), then health and social work (1.48m or 23%), then public administration and defence (0.89m or 13.8%). It should also be noted that 92% of union members are white, although union density is highest among black or black British workers (28%). This reflects a workforce that is 90% white and of which 91% holds UK nationality (86% born in the UK), contrary to the popular perception – fuelled by the demand of “British jobs for British workers” – that competition for jobs is largely produced by pressure from immigration.

Christine Blower

Aspects of this portrait provides a jarring contrast with the media image of the “union man”, which is usually drawn from dusted-off photos of male miners, factory and transport workers. Last year, it was largely a rise of 68k members in education (the highest increase among all industries) that contributed to that overall increase of 59k in the size of the trade unions. Today, the typical union member is a female teacher, lecturer, or member of educational support staff; their spokesperson will look more Christine Blower, Chris Keates, Sally Hunt, or Bernadette Hunter (General Secretaries of NUT, NASUWT, UCU, and President of NAHT) than Arthur Scargill, Bob Crow, or Len McCluskey. Perhaps it is because these teaching and lecturing unions have no financial affiliation with the Labour party that they are less likely to be caricatured in the right-wing press (although Unite and Unison, to which educational support staff may belong, do) or perhaps there is a less insidious class snobbery at play as union members become increasingly bourgeois and suburban.

But it should be remembered, in this context, that although union militancy is a fraction of what it was in 1979 and indeed of the labour disputes of 2011, education workers were the second most militant group last year after public administration and defence workers, and recent clashes between the teaching and lecturer unions and the Coalition government look set to come to a head over the next year and a half. The two major teaching  unions, the NASUWT and the NUT, have announced a series of rolling strikes in September and October, the traditionally conservative National Association of Head Teachers have for the first time joined NASUWT, NUT, and ATL in passing a vote of no confidence in Education Secretary Michael Gove, and UCU are currently balloting members over strike action. It it also interesting to note that whilst strike action in public administration and defence is broadly spread around the north and south-east of England and Wales, in education strikes and stoppages are largely concentrated within London and to a lesser extend the East Midlands.

As the traditional industrial heartlands of the unions have been broken up by the privatization of national industries and the growth of the service and still predominantly public-sector knowledge economies, union membership has become concentrated in industries possessing a larger female workforce, leading to a “feminization” of the unions. In education, for example, women make up three quarters of registered teachers in schools (this figure is significantly higher in primary education) and 44% of academics and 53.8% of all staff in higher education. In turn, against a backdrop of a continued pay gap between men and women, unionizing currently “pays” for women workers: the wage premium, defined as the percentage difference in average gross hourly earnings of union members compared with non-members, is 30% for women compared with 5% for men.

It is possible to suggest a couple of political conclusions from this analysis of changes in the trade union movement:

First, for a government economically beholden to transnational corporations and, as the Leveson inquiry demonstrated, in cahoots with the media and a declining publishing industry, education presents a sector ripe for opening up to private investment and capitalist rationalization; one that, for reasons connected to an unreformed aristocratic conservatism within English education, has the potential to be a globally attractive commodity. But the biggest opponents to the liberalization of pay and working conditions, necessary for the creation of a market in education, are the teaching and lecturing unions. The surge of Free Schools and Academies (taken out of Local Authority control and national curriculum and pay scales) are one way of circumventing the education unions, another is the recent introduction of performance-related pay for teachers, a third is a State enforcement of financial restrictions on certain schools and universities which is intended to enable some existing educational institutions to fail.

In an article for The Daily Mail, titled ‘I refuse to surrender to the Marxist teachers hell-bent on destroying our schools’, Gove presents his changes as circumventing the network of “ideologically-driven” educational gurus referred to as The Blob, but as the rest of the article makes clear his real target are “ultra militants in the unions who are threatening strikes” and “who see themselves as part of The Blob…”:

We have abolished the quangos they controlled. We have given  a majority of secondary schools academy status so they are free from the influence of The Blob’s allies in local government. We are moving teacher training away from university departments and into our best schools. And we are reforming our curriculum and exams to restore the rigour they abandoned.

Second, if the recent attack on Labour’s affiliation with some trade unions suggests this Coalition government might seek to make political capital out of a confrontation with the unions – reproducing (albeit on a smaller scale and in different political circumstances) Thatcher’s “1979” moment – an obvious target would be a staged confrontation with workers in the largest “unreformed” industry, and some of Gove’s recent posturing suggests such a confrontation is desired. What is uncertain is how these changes in union demographics (sex, class, and region) and militancy might effect media and public sympathy for striking workers.

These observations provide some backdrop to this commentary I published in Radical Philosophy 176 (Nov/Dec 2012)).

One thought on “The British Disease?

  1. Pingback: Celeb Youth | Pedagogy & the Inhumanities

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