Is Militant Trade Unionism Dead?

Craig Lewis writes: We are living through a time of multiple crises brought about by an economic system that has disrupted nature and is upending the lives of millions of workers worldwide. Workers experience these crises most directly through the impact on their working lives, as employers seek to protect profitability or to capitalise on these crises by restructuring their businesses. Never therefore has workplace struggle been more important in protecting working class interests. Never has there been more need to connect the fight to protect jobs, living standards and employment conditions with wider resistance to capitalism itself. Yet in the UK and throughout much of Europe, trade union organisation, activity and membership has been in decline for decades. This discussion article maps the scale of the problem, reviews recent debates on what has caused it, and the prospects for a revival of militant trade unionism. The final section looks at the importance of rebuilding confident grass roots organisation within and across workplaces focussing on the issues that socialists and activists need to address in doing so. Using the current experience of NHS activists in Wales, it argues that even during periods of historically low levels of trade union struggle, activists can intervene to strengthen rank and file organisation and confidence.

The scale of the problem

The decline of UK trade unionism been well documented over the last 25 years. All the main indicators of trade union activity (membership, strike levels and collective bargaining coverage) confirm its diminished state. Total membership fell rapidly from 13.2m in 1981 to 8m in 1995 and has continued a downward trend since. In 2019/20, the last year for which figures are available, membership stood at about 6.6m. Density (the proportion of unionised workers in the workforce) has followed a similar pattern. In 1995 31.5% of workers were in unions; this had fallen to 23.7% in 2020. 2018 (the most recent figures available) saw a slight upturn in strikes but this was still the sixth lowest number of days lost to strike action since records began in 1893 (273,000). The total number of stoppages (81) was the lowest since 1930. The number of workers taking part in recorded strikes was also the lowest since records began – 26,000 (see here, and here ). Since the mid-1980s collective bargaining coverage has also declined, so that today only 27% of total UK workers are covered by collective agreements; less than half the EU average of 60%.

The declines themselves are not historically unique. Trade union membership fell by 50% in the 15 years following the General Strike, slightly more than the decline in the 20 years following the miners’ defeat in 1985. In the quarter century following the miners’ defeat, strikes fell by 94%. A slightly higher fall in strike days over a similar period followed the General Strikes in 1926 (98%). What is unusual about the last 25 to 30 years however is the persistence of decline. Despite the austerity assault of the Coalition and Cameron years, and the spate of “fire and re-hire” attacks during the pandemic, there has never been more than a “patchwork quilt” of resistance. There have even been large, usually limited, strikes, the 2011 public sector pension strikes for example but, there has been no generalised fight-back by organised workers. During the last 9 years average strike days (0.4m per year) have been barely a quarter of the yearly average during the Second World War when strikes were technically illegal! (see here)

The Debate on Decline and Renewal

There has been considerable debate on the Left and in academia about the persistence of this decline in union struggle, the possibilities for a revival, and how socialists might most effectively intervene to reverse it. The debates have focused on some well-rehearsed themes in industrial relations; the relative importance of material factors such as employment levels, industrial restructuring, neoliberal economic policies, anti-union laws, and the erosion of the welfare state. These have often been contrasted with “subjective factors” impacting workers’ consciousness and making them less willing to take industrial action. For example, the ideology of individualism, the politics of identity, the impact of major working-class defeats on a generation of activists and union leaders, the influence of New Labour and notions of partnership in the 1990s, along with spontaneous shifts in the mood of union members are all seen as having undermined union members’ willingness to fight. Some academics tried to link levels of strike activity and union membership to the rhythms of the capitalist accumulation process in order to avoid the “historical vacuum” (Kelly 1997) in which much of the debate has have taken place. (Kelly 1998).

Newer themes have emerged too. Proponents of financialization maintain that exploitation of labour no longer occurs primarily in the workplace. They argue that the struggle against debt and the fight for fair rents are more important than issues of pay and working conditions. Others have claimed that technological change such as digitisation, the “platform economy” and the emergence of new forms of precarious employment have transformed the way workers experience work. In turn this has made “old fashioned” notions of solidarity redundant and driven a permanent wedge between “elite” workers with pensions and permanent jobs and a precariat struggling with low income and little control over their terms of employment (Standing 2021). Indeed, even the relevance of class struggle has been implicitly questioned by some who suggest that new technology is driving the evolution of “post capitalism” without the need for a transformative revolution. (Mason 2015).

(For more detail on all these debates see links to the relevant issues of International Socialism Journal below.)

It is beyond the scope of this piece to engage in the detail of these debates other than to make two points. There is scant evidence that extraction of surplus value from workers within the labour process no longer drives capitalist production. Consequently, the exploitative and conflictual nature of work remains central to Capitalist relations of production. (see here from Michael Roberts). Secondly, as Simon Joyce has argued, the distinction between “material” and “subjective” factors does not take us very far in analysing trade union decline. Rather any explanation of trade union decline needs to address the “perfect storm” of inter-related material and subjective factors which hit the organised working class in the 1980s consisting of: “..traumatic economic changes, increasingly tough new laws to curb industrial action, and chastening defeats of major unions”.

Reversing the decline 1: the Official Movement:

Trade union leaderships tried various approaches to reversing membership decline. In the immediate aftermath of Thatcherism, unions tried to adapt to what they saw as the “new realism” by adopting a “servicing approach”. This involved diverting more resources into individual casework and extending the provision of welfare and other benefits such as insurance and financial services. During the New Labour years, a “partnership approach” dominated the official movement. This represented a massive accommodation to new forms of Human Resource Management. A shift away from the idea that there was inherent conflict in the workplace towards the notion that a shared vision of organisational objectives was possible between employers and unions. More recently unions have rediscovered an “organising approach”. But this has been mainly based around top-down initiatives. Trained specialist organisers have been deployed to target unorganised workplaces for recruitment and eventually recognition. None of these official approaches have significantly stemmed the decline, as the figures above indicate.

Reversing the decline 2: Rebuilding Rank and File militancy

Some on the Left have argued that little can be done to revive workplace trade unionism until there is a generalised up-turn in class struggle. This seems unduly pessimistic and even counterproductive. There is a wealth of evidence that the character of workplace organisation and especially the role, capacity, and political understanding of activists within it can play a vital role in helping workers become aware of their collective strength and the way they can deploy it most effectively. (Darlington 1994). Even in a period of low levels of workplace struggle, effective grass roots organisation can play a central role in rebuilding militant trade unionism. To understand why this is so, it is useful to first consider the dynamics of workplace trade unionism. Over 50 years ago Marxist academic Richard Hyman argued that trade unions are subject to three sets of interacting contradictions rooted in the exploitation and conflict inherent in the Capitalist employment relationship.

Firstly, there is a contradiction between “accommodation and conflict”: trade unions both challenge management (and at times can challenge capitalism itself), but also need to co-operate with employers to improve or defend the terms and conditions of members. This means there is a constant tension between pushing the “frontier of control” at work in favour of union members and coming to agreements with management (Goodrich 1922). A second contradiction arises out of this within union structures themselves; between “bureaucracy and democracy”. From their inception trade unions have had to develop a full-time structure of officials and senior lay officers to manage the affairs and finances of the union (Webb and Webb 1894). For a whole variety of reasons these officials tend to be predisposed to conflict resolution and deals, even though this may not always coincide with the objectives of members involved in a struggle. Moreover, members and activists rely on the expertise and support of officials and can therefore become dependent on them. Yet at the same time the internal structure of most unions is democratic, providing opportunities for well organised grass-roots activists to use official structures to organise and assert pressure on, or control over, the officials when necessary. Finally, there is a third contradiction within the union membership; between solidarity and sectionalism. Workers are divided in many ways within the production process. Divisions arising from gender, sex, sexual orientation etc; divisions based on jobs and skill; on the nature of employment such as permanent, temporary, full, and part-time. These have been made more complex in recent years by new employment practices aimed at circumventing workers’ rights such as agency working, bogus self-employment and gig-working. All of these provide the possibility of sectional interests undermining the collective solidarity essential to build the confidence and combativity necessary to win disputes. Divisions which employers and their political and media champions will exploit when necessary. (Carola Frege et al 2011), (Hyman 1989)

Understanding the weaknesses and opportunities inherent in these contradictory forces is vital for socialists and activists to intervene effectively in workplace union organisation. Recently some of us in Wales have developed a guide for workplace activists to help reps, stewards and grassroots activists do precisely that.

A Lesson from NHS Workers in Wales

The Pay Strategy Group Wales is an important development in grassroots trade unionism. It was organised by rank-and-file reps and activists to campaign around consultative ballots being held by Unite, Unison, RCN and other NHS unions. It is one of the few rank and file organised groups in recent years to build links across union boundaries. Len Arthur of Wales Left Unity has been in close contact with the activists involved through the People’s Assembly Wales. What follows resulted from interviews with him about the organisation and the challenges they have had to face during their on-going campaign.

Their experience illustrates how activists have encountered and are dealing with all the contradictory tensions Hyman identified. The network seems to have emerged out of concern that union leaderships were not campaigning effectively enough to guarantee success in the ballots. A recognition that the leaderships might be too ready to “accommodate” to the recent NHS pay review body proposal for a 3% rise. The Group took steps to counter this possibility by planning, at an early stage to campaign jointly across all the unions involved. They are producing leaflets, press releases, organising joint stalls and other agitational activities amongst members. They have even contacted activists in Scotland to learn from their experience earlier in the year when the large NHS unions had settled for a Scottish Government offer of 4%, which had been opposed unsuccessfully by grassroots activists. As the Pay Strategy Group developed their organisation and campaign, the other contradictions, identified in Hyman’s framework, inevitably manifested themselves. Their group discussions reveal genuine frustration amongst activists about sectional divisions leading to lack of co-operation between official union structures. In meetings and digital discussions, group members continually emphasise building grass-roots solidarity to overcome this. Much time and effort is spent on activities such as planning and mapping of activists in the network, exchanging contact details, identifying union meetings in which to intervene, development of cross-union motions for use in the meetings. All vital activities to strengthen collective solidarity and minimize potential sectional differences.

Activists have also had to confront Hyman’s bureaucracy/democracy contradiction. Conversations and planning charts reveal union officials are used as a source of information and technical advice concerning things like the availability and distribution of publicity material, finance of printing, technical aspects of the law etc. Group members also make effective use of union structures. For example, organising interventions in branch meeting around pre-prepared motions and using union regional structures to lobby Senedd (Welsh parliament) members, and to network with other activists. On the other hand, there is clear frustration with union bureaucracies when rule books and officials seem to hinder the network’s activity. Nevertheless, they have generally responded with remarkable ingenuity to act outside official structures, work round rule books, and deal with other bureaucratic obstacles. For example, by finding alternative sources of funding for materials and printing within those branches where the network has strong rank and file support.

Unfortunately It was not possible from this brief study to comment on one of the most important and most overlooked factors determining the effectiveness of rank-and-file trade union organisation: the politics of the activists themselves, especially those leading the network. (Darlington & Lyddon 2001) Nor was it possible to examine the extent to which the activists were able to build wider community support by linking their pay campaign to defence of the NHS or public services in general. Nevertheless, the link between renewed rank and file trade union organisation and wider issues such as defence of the NHS, the climate campaign, and the developing movement against creeping authoritarianism will be vital if workers are to meet the challenges of the multi-pronged crises of capitalism outlined in the introduction to this piece. Making those links between immediate economic interests and wider political struggle depends vitally on the politics of rank-and-file workplace leadership. Left Unity is currently discussing our strategy for future development and activity. An essential part of that must be to consider how best, as a political organisation, we can help develop the quality of rank-and-file political leadership within the trade union movement.

Whether the NHS network survives, and activists can build it into a more permanent structure is difficult to predict. Much depends on the boost that success in the consultative ballots would generate. The Pay Strategy Group would then have a much more onerous task to win industrial action ballots across all the unions involved to take forward their struggle for decent pay. But to a remarkable degree the experience of grassroots health workers in Wales indicates that workplace trade unionism is not dead. Effective rank and file organising, and campaigning can be central to renewing and rebuilding union organisation, confidence, and willingness to fight. Pushing the “frontier of control” in workers’ favour by resisting accommodative tendencies; heading off divisive sectionalism and building solidarity around a shared grievance; learning to use union internal democracy, structures and officials effectively but still having the confidence to act independently when necessary; – these are the building blocks of combative grassroots trade unionism. And they are all present in the activities of the Pay Strategy Group Wales.


The protracted decline of trade union struggle in Britain has elicited much debate on the Left. Both about what has caused it and what can be done to reverse it. The multiplicity of interacting material and subjective factors raised in those debates are all aspects of the political context in which activists, stewards and reps must operate. However, grassroots union organisation and confidence can be rebuilt despite the general low level of trade union struggle. Doing so however depends on the politics of rank-and-file leaders and their ability to understand and make effective use of the contradictory dynamics of workplace trade unionism. Left Unity must play a part in helping to develop that leadership and political understanding.

Additional references

Carola Frege, John Kelly and Patrick McGovern: Richard Hyman, Marxism, Trade Unionism, Comparative Employment Relations, BJIR, 49: 2 June 2011

Darlington R: The Dynamics of Workplace Unionism, Mansell 1994

Darlington R and Lyddon D: Glorious Summer: Class struggle in Britain 1972, Ralph Darlington and Dave, Bookmarks 2001

Goodrich CL: Frontier of Control: Study in British Workshop Politics   Pluto Press 1975 revised edition

Hyman R: The Political Economy of Industrial Relations: Theory and Practice in a Cold Climate, BJIR 1989

Kelly J: Rethinking Industrial Relations: Mobilisation, Collectivism and

Long Waves, Routledge, London, 1998

Mason P: Post capitalism: A Guide to Our Future: International Edition, 2015 (Kindle edition)

Standing G: The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, 2021 Kindle Edition

Webb S and B: The History of Trade Unionism, Longmans, London 1920 edition,

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