The days of beer and sandwich-fuelled meetings at ten Downing Street seem a distant memory for the unions which back in the Seventies wielded a powerful stick when it came to the formation of Government policy.
The Thatcher years put paid to their influence with legislation that removed the unions’ all-important ability to hold the country to ransom if things did not go their way.
So when New Labour, under Tony Blair, was voted into power the unions could have been forgiven for thinking that their time had come again. Indeed, the minimum wage was quickly introduced, although not at the level some unions had wanted. Legislation requiring employers to recognise a union which signs up a sizeable percentage of the workforce was also put on the statute books. But in companies where the workforce is made up of people trained in different disciplines the required percentage has often been rather difficult to obtain.
In the meantime, the unions have had to deal with plummeting membership figures – down 5 million since 1980 when half the workforce were paid-up members.
Recognising that image is everything – as Labour did back in the Eighties – the Trades Union Congress is set to embark on a programme to attract new union members. But will the benefits of independent pensions advice, access to information on employers’ legal obligations on workplace conditions, and help with employment rights be enough to get younger members on board? These matters are not top priorities for youngsters who have just entered the workplace and are keen to blow their wages on designer outfits, their first car and holidays in Ibiza. But if the unions don’t attract people at a relatively early age, they will later have to compete for whatever disposable income is left once mortgage payments, pension contributions and the expenses of bringing up a family have been met.
The route forward may well be to give 20-somethings advice on how to climb the career ladder and earn more money to pay for the necessities of modern life. Or, of course, there is always the New Labour solution: get a celebrity to front a campaign promoting the benefits of union membership.
The irony is that workers disappointed by the weakness of Labour’s worker-friendly legislation and Government plans to extend private sector control into public services may have contributed to reversing the decline in union membership, which has risen by 100,000 in the past year, to 7.3 million.
It does not stop there. Immediately after the last general election New Labour received a union delegation concerned about the Government’s plans for the public services. New Labour moved to mollify the unions and address their concerns. Beer and sandwiches had been replaced with a roast beef dinner. Perhaps the upgraded menu, worthy of the finest Islington restaurant, was an indication of New Labour’s true fear – not strikes but the disappearance of donations from the faithful unions. Weeks later the GMB axed £1m from its party donation over the next four years in protest at Government plans. Who said the unions have lost their campaigning zeal?