It is difficult for a post-Thatcher generation to understand how powerful the British trade unions once were, before the epic confrontations with the government in the 1980s.
Their stature was most evident in 1974, when Edward Heath asked the electorate who ran the country — the unions or him? This question became the defining theme of the election that followed, when he was duly voted out of office.
Total Politics visited Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trade Union Congress (TUC), at his plush Great Russell Street offices to find out about the movement today, and its place in the 21st century.
It’s fair to say that Barber, who has worked for the TUC since 1975 and been general secretary since 2003, isn’t especially high profile, particularly in comparison with some of his predecessors — John Monks or Len Murray, for example. Nevertheless he is in a relaxed mood for our interview and, while chatting to us, rests one leg on the polished glass coffee table we have gathered around.
It is possible, however, that his relatively low profile could pose a problem to the greater movement. Should he try to make more of his role in the media? “Yes, it’s an important part of the job, to try to be a strong and powerful voice on behalf of the causes that we espouse,” he says. “We do work hard to get media attention, and rightly so, for our campaigns. We try to do it in a way that sustains the authority of the TUC — I’d like to think that the TUC has a reputation as authoritative.”
Low profile aside, the issue of membership is the most pressing concern for the current union movement. Barber admits that membership has remained low in private employment, and in some industries where protection is particularly important. “Leisure, hospitality — in sectors like that, membership has not grown as strongly as wewould like. We’ve certainly got a big organising challenge, in particular, to try to grow trade union membership in the private sector.”
He suggests that unions receive high levels of public support on the issue of resolving pay disputes for public sector workers, and this is a boost to their profile. “I don’t think we’ve done badly in this area, in getting across a powerful, well-argued case that local government servants shouldn’t be getting paid that little,” he says. “When times are hard, and the economy is struggling, the government needs to find ways of doing more to protectthe lowest paid.”
But how have trade unions developed to meet the challenges of the modern-day workforce? Barber points outthat the TUC now tackles more issues than simply pay demands. “Part of it is about negotiating on pay levels, andthat’s the stuff that tends to hit the headlines, particularly when there are disputes,” he says. “But increasingly, it’sabout trying to influence all the other things that impact on the quality of people’s work environment. Better opportunities to work more productively are a key issue. The battle to win genuine equality at work is usually brought up. We’ve still got a long way to go to deliver equal pay — and half of trade union members are women”.
The TUC has made an effort to attract new members through its Organising Academy, set up ten years ago to train new union organisers. However, membership is still falling. It stands at 26 per cent in England — although Wales has seen growth recently, to over 37 per cent. Barber explains that he has concentrated much of the organisation’s limited resources on developing relations with existing members. “We’ve seen unions invest a lot more in that organising challenge. It’s like any organisation, we’ve got limited resources, so you’ve got to chooseyour priorities. Clearly, supporting and representing your existing membership face is an important job that you’ve got to stay focused on.”
A significant challenge on the horizon for the TUC is the possible election of a Conservative government in 2010. Barber is quick to respond to the suggestion that relations might be frosty. On the contrary, he argues, the size of the movement means that it carries a lot of weight. “Our job is to carry on representing our 6.5 million members — there is no organisation with anything like that many members that represents a very significant proportion of thenational workforce. The agreements we have made with employers cover a few million more on top of that. So any government ought to take a serious look at the effective representative voice on behalf of those people.”
Pressed further on the subject of good relations with a Cameron government he says: “There have been somesignals they would want to have a vaguely open relationship with the trade union movement, but nothing decisive.On many big issues, they’ve simply not taken clear policy positions at this stage. Would they want to change the basic legislation on corporations? What would their approach be on some of the rights that have been won over the last ten years? Their stance on these issues is not too clear.”
What about the current Prime Minister — are relations better or worse than with his predecessor? “Gordon Brown has a very different approach to Tony Blair, but in terms of opportunities to make our case, it’s still similar,” he says.
While relations with Brown may be cordial, Barber expresses some anger over the Lisbon Treaty fiasco. “We would have preferred that the British government had fully signed up to the charter without any complications. The UK government was wary of including the Charter in case it forced changes in British labour law. The protocol that it negotiated meant the charter would not allow the European Court of Justice to rule UK laws as inconsistent with fundamental rights.”
The trade union movement may not be on the scale it once was, and membership is admittedly in decline, but Brendan Barber is as passionate as any TUC leader who has gone before him, determined that the organisation remains relevant and fights for the rights of workers.
Looking out across the town of Ravello, in Italy. It has gorgeous views over the Amalfi Coast.
Blimey, lamb shank.
What music makes you get up and dance?
Pop music. I still like Motown stuff, the sounds from my youth, they’re so relaxed. All of that stuff is good.
Who do you prefer, Indiana Jones or James Bond?
I think Indiana Jones, particularly as James Bond has got a bit tired.