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Refusing To Be Poor Anymore? British Trade Unionism in the 2020s

Refusing To Be Poor Anymore? British Trade Unionism in the 2020s
 Ewan Gibbs
Lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow

Britain has just experienced a year of seismic escalation in industrial conflict. A wave of strikes spread across unionised sections of the public and private sector. Workers withdrew their labour at schools, colleges, university in the postal service on the railways and buses and at ports, warehouses, refineries and on offshore oil and gas platforms, galvanised by discontent over high levels of inflation and large real terms pay cuts. The Office of National Statistics has reported that days lost to industrial action surpassed all previous records this century and for the 1990s. 

The last time that a total of more than 2.4 million days were lost to strike action in a year was in 1989, when Margaret Thatcher was still in power. Key sectors of the economy, including the electricity supply industry, coal mining, steelmaking and rail were still in public ownership. Whilst 1989 came four years after the epoch-defining defeat of the year-long coal miners strike in 1984-5, it was also before the full reverberations of the accompanying reconstruction of workplace relations had been felt. 

'We refuse to be poor anymore'

Mick Lynch, the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail and Maritime Transport Workers (RMT) emerged as an unlikely celebrity and the leading media spokesperson not just of his union but of newfound worker mobilisation during 2022. 

Lynch's defining slogans at rallies across the country, organised by the pan-union Enough Is Enough campaign, were: 'The working class is back' and 'We refuse to be poor anymore'.

Despite the confidence gained from a notable spurt of activity, British trade unions are not yet recovering the position they previously enjoyed as bona fide participants in an industrial society. The effects of the acceleration of deindustrialisation in the closing decades of the twentieth century and the accompanying politicised delegitimisation of trade unions remain serious obstacles to building organised labour's strength. Most notably, unions face the continued challenge of wielding power and influence outside of established strongholds in the public sector and the areas of the private sectors which are legacies of privatisation or the older industrial economy. 

Winning and Losing Recognition

British unions obtained their peak of recognition as legitimate organisations who spoke for industrial workers, and increasingly also white-collar public sector workers, over the 1960s and 1970s. They had emerged strengthened from the Second World War. In the years of full employment that followed, unions became enmeshed in the environment of expanding nationalised industries as well as in the corporatist efforts of British governments to raise productivity through bodies such as the National Economic Development Council. These initiatives solidified a commitment to tripartite working between employers, trade unions and government.

Workplace conflict though remained a persistently contentious subject in Britain. Both Labour and Conservative governments attempted to tackle the problem of the shopfloor power of elected workplace representatives, shop stewards, who were viewed as agents of unofficial strike action and restrictive practices that sought to protect the status of craft workers at the expense of industrial efficiency. 

British unions were characteristically diffuse and decentralised.

British unions were characteristically diffuse and decentralised. Even within the large unions which exercised considerable influence within Labour Party politics, such as the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU) and the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) who were dominant in manufacturing, factory branches and workgroups within plants often exercised considerable independence. The powerful National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) was defined by a federalised structure and considerable differences between the industrial politics of more moderate and radical areas who prized their autonomy. 

Whilst the NUM exercised the height of its power in the national coal strikes of 1972 and 1974, when miners achieved major wage increases, its membership was by then less than half of what it had been when post-Second World War coal employment peaked at around 700,000 in the late 1950s. Similar rundowns of employment were experienced in dock work, the railways and other leading unionised sectors with overall manufacturing employment peaking at 1966 and falling thereafter. 

Unions nevertheless kept growing into the late 1970s, when membership peaked at over 13 million, accounting for fifty-five per cent of all British workers. A greater proportion of workers still had their terms and conditions agreed by collective bargaining between unions and employers with coverage peaking at more than seventy per cent of workers around the same time. 

Thereafter, unions were subjected to political and legal delegitimisation with the passing of a programme of legislation under the Thatcher governments. Workers' ability to organise legal industrial action was curtailed through limitations on action in support of other workers or picketing workplaces not directly involved in disputes. Postal ballots replaced workplace ballots in relation to strike votes and union elections. Union legislation has gotten harsher still in recent years following the Trade Union Act of 2016 which introduced tough minimal turnout thresholds for strike ballots.

In the twenty-first century, British trade unionism has been defined by retrenchment.

These changes, which were accompanied by shifts in Britain's economic structure, led to the marginalisation of trade unions. From 1979 to 1997, through eighteen years of Conservative government, public sector employment fell from over 7 million to 5 million. Combined employment in manufacturing, mining and utilities also fell from around 7.5 million to around half that level from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. 

Twenty-First Century British Trade Unionism 

In the twenty-first century, British trade unionism has been defined by retrenchment, amalgamations and by the continuing importance of the public sector and legacy industrial membership. Unions have retained a diminished political influence within the Labour Party. They have also in more recent years shifted towards embracing more combative organising agendas.

Union membership figures have fallen to around 8 million in 2000 to 6.25 million in 2022, following a loss of 200,000 members in the previous year alone. Density stabilised at approaching thirty per cent in the mid-2000s before declining at a much faster rate than membership numbers in the context of a growing workforce, currently standing at around twenty-two per cent.

The organisational structure of unions has reflected these changes. Since the mid-2000s, more public than private sector workers have been members of unions despite the public sector only making up around one fifth of the entire British workforce. Furthermore, women are now more likely than male workers to be members of a trade union. 

Yet there has also been an overall decrease in union density within formerly heavily unionised sectors. Since the mid-1990s the proportion of workers in electricity and gas fell by over forty per cent, whilst overall public sector density fell from around sixty per cent to less than half over the previous twenty years and private sector density has fallen to twelve per cent.

British unions have responded to these shifts by concentrating to pool resources. Some older sectoral unions such as the NUM have essentially disappeared whilst others like the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation merged with number of other smaller unions to form Community in 2004. Three large unions now account for more than half of Britain’s unionised workers. Unite, which was formed by the merger of the AEU’s successor AMICUS and the TGWU in the mid-2000s currently claims 1.4 million members and Unison, a public sector union formed by the merger of three health and local government unions in 1993, has 1.3 million members. 

The GMB was formed by an earlier merger of the National Union of General and Municipal Workers and the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers, Shipwrights, Blacksmiths and Structural Workers. It has around half a million members. Symbolising the turn towards 'general' as opposed to traditional occupational or sectoral unions, GMB is no longer an acronym and like Unite it is pledged to organising across the traditional lines that separated British unions from one another. 

The three largest unions in Britain retain affiliation to the Labour Party, which appears unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Their engagement with Labour policymaking gives them a potential to mould employment protection and industrial policy. These relations have waxed and waned and varied between unions’ political preferences.

The three largest unions in Britain retain affiliation to the Labour Party.

Trade union support ensured that Ed Miliband defeated his brother David in the 2010 Labour leadership election, giving Labour a more social democratic outlook. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, and his advocacy of expanded public ownership and a 'green industrial revolution' was closely associated with Unite. Keir Starmer’s current more cautious Labour leadership has nevertheless continued to champion an active industrial policy and a publicly-owned energy company which has been associated with the GMB.

National and regional distinctions remain an important point of differentiation in British trade unionism. Recognition remains highest in former industrial areas, which also tend to have the highest rates of public sector employment. In the case of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, these are also associated with devolved administrations. Scottish and Welsh governments have shown a more supportive attitude towards involving unions in policymaking and committing to 'fair work' agendas. Nevertheless, the same broad patterns of industrial relations are visible as at a UK level.

Trade Unionism For The 2020s

Union density in Britain is presently approximately the same level as the weighted average across European Union, with both falling between a fifth and a quarter of workers. British workers enjoy a higher density than in Germany at eighteen per cent, Spain at nineteen and France at just eight. 

Nevertheless, membership is now far lower than in Scandinavia, where most workers are union members, and Belgium, where unions have a prominent place within the state welfare system. Unlike in nations where strong unions developed systems of co-determination such as German Works Councils, British unions also have not been able to fall back on forms of institutionalised support after losing strength in adversarial collective bargaining.

Unions in Britain remain affiliated to industries or occupations and even general unions like Unite, the GMB or Community broadly retain demarcations thanks to existing recognition agreements and sectoral strengths. There is little possibility of the three largest unions disaffiliating from the Labour Party and all significant unions retain affiliation to the Trades Union Congress as well as the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Wales TUC. This is a distinctive persisting model to the more politicised differences between union confederations visible in the historically Communist and Socialist affiliated CGT and CFDT in France

Nevertheless, an important turn towards rejuvenated leverage campaigning and workplace organising has been inaugurated in British unions, a turn which was consolidated after the Conservative election victory in 2019. Sharon Graham was elected as the Unite General Secretary in 2021 on a platform which was critical of the union’s strategy of reliance on the Labour Party, by pledging instead to invigorate industrial activism. 

Unite recently claimed that in the last two years it has typically won between three and four thousand pound wage rises in 460 disputes. These have been concentrated in public transport, with other significant strikes and wage rises being won at Drax power station in the Midlands and Felixstowe port on the south coast. North Sea oil and gas platforms have also been impacted by strike action by workers facing the cost of living squeeze but producing 'bonanza profits' for oil and gas companies. 

These disputes reveal an important tension in the future of British trade unions whose history has been strongly enmeshed with the history of energy production from coal to oil and gas to electricity. The GMB recently lambasted Keir Starmer's proposal for a ending oil and gas licencing on climate change ground, coming out in favour of 'plans not bans'. Debates over the shape of a 'Just Transition' for workers in energy sectors and regional economies that heavily depend on extractive and carbon producing sectors will be increasingly important to unions in coming years and decades. 

The success or failure of organising agendas across the private sector will be defining. Battles like the ongoing struggle to gain union recognition for a GMB branch at Amazon's warehouse and Coventry and attempts to build on the union's success in achieving the same feat at the Apple store in Glasgow will define whether British workers can meaningfully refuse to be poor anymore.


Building strength by overcoming forty years of membership and density decline is the main challenge for British unions. A year of high levels of industrial action fuelled by both high inflation and tight labour markets saw unions win public support and encouraged workers to either renew or deepen their involvement in the labour movement. Conversely though, unions have continued shrinking despite these hopeful upturns.

The biggest challenge unions face though remains establishing a strong recognised presence in the private service sector.

Where unions are already present, they are generally weaker than they once were and face the challenge of strengthening their presence by signing up more members and encouraging the existing ones into higher levels of activity. Favourable changes in industrial policy by a Labour government or stripping back some recent legislation like the Trade Union Act of 2016 would help achieve this.

The biggest challenge unions face though remains establishing a strong recognised presence in the private service sector where most British workers are employed but where their presence remains very limited. 


Copyright Image: JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP

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