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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: G.B. Le mouvement syndical malmené

by Marc Lenormand

Britain : The Trade Union Movement Has Been Mauled.

Translated Monday 17 May 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Gene Zbikowski

The British trade union movement fought a mainly defensive battle in the recent election campaign.

by Marc Lenormand, TA at Lyons II University [1]

The British trade union movement has seen its membership fall to 7.1 million members in 2009, down from a high point of over 13 million members in 1979. In the context of an economic crisis that has triggered a contraction of the manufacturing sector and budget reductions in the public sector, the British trade union movement fought a mainly defensive battle in the recent election campaign. Although the coming to power of a Conservative guarantees quick and drastic budget reductions in public services, the trade unions’ continued support of the Labour Party was a lesser-evil choice. Labour offered only a respite in the budget reductions in public services promised by the three main political parties in the campaign, johnny-come-lately promises as to the setting up of a real industrial policy permitting the relaunch of the industrial sector, and finally the maintenance of the meager gains scored by New Labour over 13 years.

Indeed, the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown refused to change the economic framework established by the Conservatives between 1979 and 1997. This framework is characterized by the priority accorded to the financial sector, the absence of support for the industrial sector, the privatization of the energy and transport sectors, the reduction of the budgets of local authorities, and laws that severely curtail trade union action.

Moreover, it is in this last area, that of labor struggles and the legal straitjacket that confines them, that one can observe the most worrying recent developments, i.e. the increasing number of companies that look to court injunctions to block strikes, even when those strikes have been decided by a majority of union members in a secret-ballot vote.

The Conservatives’ 1992 Trade Union Act includes a mechanism whereby the trade unions are obliged to furnish company management with detailed and exact information concerning the employees participating in a strike vote. This mechanism, forgotten in the 1990s and rediscovered in the past two years by litigation lawyers, has made it possible for dozens of companies to obtain no-strike injunctions, since on their side the employers are not obliged to furnish the trade unions with the detailed information that would allow the unions to hold a legally-binding vote. Thus the managements of British Airways and Network Rail were recently able to thwart strikes scheduled respectively by the flight crews and the rail line maintenance crews.

Whereas the Conservatives regularly repeat their promise to forbid strikes in essential services, the sudden revival of Thatcherite legislation in the form of these injunctions has underscored the unions’ failure, in 13 years of Labour government, to change the balance of power in the working world.

[1He is preparing a doctoral thesis on labor conflict in the 1970s in Great Britain.

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