Trouble coming down the track – and not just for rail unions

17 January 2020


The unions were not very visible in the recent general election. Individual union leaders, notably Len McCluskey of Unite and Dave Ward of CWU were regarded as particularly influential in Corbyn’s inner circle and were occasionally given some media coverage but most of the other unions were either unable to attract much media or weren’t interested in doing so. However, just as they do in every general election, unions provided funding, resources and activists for the campaign, but their profile was nothing like years gone by.

This may simply be a reflection of the fact that neither the media nor the Tories see them as the ‘threat’ that they seemed in the 1970s and 1980s. This, in turn, reflects the decline in membership, density and influence at the workplace and beyond that unions have experienced over the last 40 years. Globalisation and heightened product competition, economic restructuring, privatisation, decades of hostility from government, including law after law designed to make unions less effective (none of which were repealed in 13 years of New Labour government) have all had a damaging impact. Union membership has halved from 13 million in 1979 to 6.35 million in 2018 (and in a larger workforce today). The 2018 figures show a slight increase for the second year running (in 2018 of 103,000 more members or a 1.6% increase over 2017) but the long term data show a serious decline.

Trade union membership levels in the UK, 1892 to 2018

TU stats

Source: BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS (p. 4). Historic data is administrative data on union membership from Department for Employment (1892-1973); and the Certification Office (1974-2017). Data on UK employees that are trade union members is based on the Labour Force Survey, Office for National Statistics


Despite the drop in numbers, unions remain the largest social movement in the UK, with millions of members in all parts of the country, among all sections of the population and in all industries (although membership is not evenly spread in any of these categories). In some areas, unions have proved more resilient than others. Wales (30.5%), Scotland (28.2%) and Northern Ireland (35.2%) all have a higher union density than England (22.1%) and this has consistently been the case for many years. Within England, the regions with the highest union density are the North East (28.9%), the North West (28.2%) and Yorkshire and the Humber (27.2%).

There are real possibilities for Labour to rebuild its political fortunes on these bases of unionism but there are also real challenges as the general election results in parts of the North of England and North Wales showed. In addition, the Tories are aware that, weakened though they are, the unions represent one of the few possible powerful poles of opposition to them over the next five years.

Consequently, although they haven’t focused on the unions recently as much as in the past, neither have they either forgotten or forgiven the unions for their past or for their potential future. As a result, although there was not much in the Tory manifesto that directly related to unions, we can expect swift action on this one line pledge:


‘We will require that a minimum service operates during transport strikes.’


This is a back-door attempt to remove the right to strike for transport workers and is aimed at the RMT following successful campaigns on the Tube and (particularly) trains in the South East. Johnson has some history with the RMT from when he was Mayor of London and the union ran a series of very successful campaigns on London Underground and the rail links into London.

Individual postal balloting was brought in by the Conservatives in earlier legislation because they thought that this would be a way to reduce the number of strikes. The RMT (and other unions) showed that as the Gershwins said, ‘it ain’t necessarily so’. Between 2002 and 2015 the RMT ran over 250 strike ballots on rail and London Underground and in almost every one of them (Darlington, 2015), won overwhelming votes for action. So successful was their balloting strategy that in many cases management conceded without a strike taking place.

After receiving a bloody nose at the hands of the RMT, Johnson as Mayor of London was instrumental in getting the Conservative party to adopt the proposal of imposing a threshold on strike ballots. Now that this has failed to eliminate strikes, and he is PM, he will no doubt attempt to push through this latest malevolent effort to prevent workers having a meaningful right to strike[1]. If the Conservatives are successful in imposing this restriction on transport, there will be pressure from the Tory back benches to extend this to other areas of the economy – first ‘essential’ services (however defined) and then more and more widely. Needless to say, there is no sign that there will be any sanction of consequence for transport companies to ensure that they adequately fund and staff their services, so we will no doubt continue to experience overcrowded, under-funded and over-priced train and tube services.

Strike action is at an historically low level (see table below), so any suggestion that this is a ‘necessary’ response to ‘strike happy’ unions is nonsensical. Even in rail, far more journeys are disrupted and cancelled because of reasons that are ultimately linked to under-investment and under-staffing. And in any event, only in autocracies are workers legally prevented from withdrawing their labour.

Working days lost, UK, 1891-2018

Working days lost

Source: ONS (2019) Labour disputes in the UK: 2018, Newport: ONS. p. 5

Notes: 1898 – Welsh coal strike; 1912 – National coal strike; 1919 – Battle of George Square. Dispute over hours in a working week involving the shipbuilding and engineering trades; 1921 – Black Friday; 1926 – General Strike. Lasted nine days. Over 1.5 million coal miners, dockworkers, iron workers, printers, railwaymen, steelworkers and other transport workers joined the strike; 1972 – UK miners’ strike; 1979 – so-called ‘Winter of discontent’; 1984 to 1985 – UK miners’ strike.


With a convincing majority in Parliament and with the party’s hard right in the ascendancy, it would be surprising if the Tories did not revive their interest in making it as difficult as possible for unions to represent their members and for members to take strike action  in defence of their interests.

Several elements that were intended to be in the last piece of anti-trade union legislation were dropped before the 2016 Trade Union Act became law and we should not be surprised if the Tories return to these in the next period:

  • Stop employers processing union dues, which could have cost some unions millions in lost subs (at least in the short to medium term) as they contact every member and set up alternative ways of collecting their dues.
  • Making members opt in rather than out of the political levy. It was amended in the passage of the 2016 Act to apply only to new recruits, but could come back in for all members. At the moment, once the political fund ballots are won, everyone pays in unless they opt out. Making people vote first for the political fund and then secondly to opt in would be seen as a way of decreasing the numbers contributing.
  • Both of the above would obviously have a big impact on funding for Labour from affiliated unions.

Some of the most draconian proposals on picketing were withdrawn. These may also resurface:

  • A requirement for trade unions to provide picket plans to the police and employers two weeks in advance of strike action
  • Restrictions on unions’ use of social media
  • The creation of a new criminal offence of intimidation at picket lines
  • Requirement on picket supervisors to wear an armband to identify themselves

The Tories also pulled back from plans to restrict the use of union funds for political purposes, so we could expect some movement on this too.

The Conservatives will probably continue their efforts to make it difficult for Labour to win a future majority through boundary changes, voter suppression (photo ID etc), and their trade union strategy sits with that. The revived measures (above) on the political fund will have a knock-on impact on the amount of cash unions could donate to Labour, but it is easy to see how that could be tightened even further. If the Tories legislated that every donation from the political fund above a certain level has to be agreed in a ballot of the membership, that would cause a lot of problems. It would tie up union effort and time, cost a lot of money and provide ample opportunity for those hostile to Labour and the union link to lobby for a ‘no’ vote.

All of these (and much more to come) are powerful reasons for the unions and party to think far more co-operatively and strategically, increase political education among the activist layer as a way of getting the message out to the general membership and to reappraise how unions can work both within and outside the workplace with Labour to re-root the labour movement in the communities.

Both unions and Labour have a mutual interest in working together to fight off any further restriction on unions and in recruiting workers into unions and the party. Every affiliated union should be encouraging members to join their local Labour parties to play their part in providing Labour with a solid base in the workplace. With a mass membership of half a million, Labour can help unions to recruit and grow – where unions already have a presence, on greenfield sites and among the growing areas of the economy with increasingly precarious work. Every CLP should have a union liaison officer (some already do) to focus this work. An influx in union members into the party will ground the party in the locality, reflecting the concerns and aspirations of working people. Constituency Labour parties can show in practice their support for workers fighting for jobs, improvements in pay and conditions. Standing side by side with workers in their battles for a better deal will earn the party profile and respect. A real dialogue can build support for both trade unionism and socialist policies at the same time, and prepare the ground for a general election victory in 2024. Before then, even without a majority in Parliament it is still possible to make gains both within and perhaps more importantly outside Parliament – at the workplace, at council and mayoral level and in Scotland and Wales at devolved administration level. Mass movements can move even the most obdurate governments and we will need such a movement in the years ahead.



BEIS (2019) Trade Union Membership Statistics 2018. London: BEIS.

Darlington, R and Dobson, J (2015) The Conservative Government’s Proposed Strike Ballot Thresholds: The Challenge to the Trade Unions. Salford Business School Research Working Paper, August 2015.

ONS (2019) Labour disputes in the UK: 2018, Newport: ONS


[1] Obviously in UK law there is no legal right to strike, but increased legal restrictions on striking has made it increasingly difficult to take part in legal strike action.

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