Trade Unions: Merger Most Horrid?

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Mergers aren't all they are cracked up to be.

Plans for a merger between Amicus and the TGWU, and possibly the GMB trade unions were announced recently with some high-flown oratory from Tony Woodley, the TGWU general secretary. Invoking the ghosts of engineering militant Tom Mann and dockers' leader Ben Tillett along the way, he said that the plans send 'a warning to employers that we intend to match the power of capital with the power of united labour'. He also promised that the new union would be 'driven by one idea above all - strengthening the position of our members in the workplace'. This is fairly heady stuff, but does the reality match the rhetoric?

The merger would produce the country's biggest union. Amicus boasts over a million members, the TGWU has 750,000, and the GMB has 600,000. So a merged organisation would have 2.35 million members, or 1.75 million if only Amicus and the TGWU are involved. Most of the new organisation's members will be in the private sector, and the talk is already of a 'super-union' for workers in finance, manufacturing and elsewhere, matching the strength of Unison in the public sector.

But size isn't the real issue. There's a strong flavour of retrenchment about the proposals, especially in the face of continued falls in union membership in manufacturing, which have particularly affected the large general unions. But rather than opting to expand through recruitment and taking on the employers industrially, the TGWU and Amicus have gone for a strategy of 'growth by merger'.

This has long been the approach of Amicus, which has tried to offset its membership losses by gobbling up smaller unions. The problem with this is that it won't necessarily lead to a rise in union membership overall. By contrast, the unions that have grown most spectacularly in recent years are those that have taken action in pursuit of their members' interests. For example, the main civil service union, the PCS, has grown by some 25,000 over the past two years. Most of these new members joined the union during a series of recent industrial action campaigns - for example the dispute over the removal of safety screens in Job Centres during 2001 and 2002. Latest figures show that Unison has grown by some 17,000 members. Many of these joined in the course of the recent strikes over London weighting and the magnificent struggle by nursery nurses in Scotland. And some of the smaller unions, like the NUJ and the RMT who have been at the forefront of industrial action over pay and conditions, have also grown.

There's a partial recognition of this in Tony Woodley's promise that the new union will devote £20 million per year - around 10 percent of its anticipated membership income - to organising. A concentration of resources in this way might well lead to bigger budgets but the worry is that the emphasis will be on reducing costs as the unions merge their operations.

Ending 'pointless inter-union squabbling' has been presented as a major selling point for the merger. One argument coming from senior officials is that inter-union competition prevented the three unions from presenting a united front in the recent dispute at British Airways. The problem with this viewpoint is that it forgets one very important fact: the checkout workers at BA actually won. And the victory wasn't due to the bargaining relationships with management enjoyed by fulltimers, but to determined action by the rank and file, who walked out and stayed out until their demands were won. It's also a bit rich coming from the likes of Amicus, who instructed their members to cross GMB picket lines in the recent dispute at the Wembley site. There's nothing preventing practical unity between the unions in the here and now, for example over pensions. A merged union won't guarantee a more effective union.

Some union leaders appear to understand this rather better. Dave Prentis, the Unison general secretary, recently wrote a letter to the Guardian in which he protested that the paper's 'assertion that the only dynamism in the union movement comes from mergers is to completely misunderstand the role that unions play in improving the lives of working people'.

The new union is likely to sponsor some 300 Labour MPs (just one of whom is deputy prime minister John Prescott). And with annual membership income of £200 million it will be the party's biggest financial backer. The move is clearly aimed at producing a major bloc inside the Labour Party and creating a counterweight to the influence of the left wing members of the awkward squad, for example Bob Crow of the RMT and Mark Serwotka of the PCS.

Unlike these, Tony Woodley and Derek Simpson have been closely identified with attempts to reach a rapprochement with New Labour, particularly around the shopping list of demands that formed the agenda at New Labour's National Policy Forum in Warwick last summer. They also orchestrated the deal that let Blair off the hook over Iraq at the last Labour Party conference. The government is currently testing their loyalty with proposals to cut public sector pensions, and doubtless they hope to use the clout of a larger organisation to tilt the leadership battle in Gordon Brown's favour. But this is unlikely to lead to much of a change in New Labour's pro-business policy; rather there'll be a switch in style, with slightly more left-sounding rhetoric and the leaders of the new union being wheeled out from time to time to buoy up support for Brown and his cronies.

There are some serious implications for union democracy as well. When Derek Simpson ousted the right wing Ken Jackson as general secretary of Amicus a couple of years ago, there were high hopes on the left that he would restore the democratic culture which a succession of right wing headbangers had laid waste to. But he's proved to be more than a disappointment in this respect, even going so far as to make life very difficult indeed for left wingers on the union's NEC. The TGWU leadership has said that lay member democracy will be a prerequisite when it comes to merger. But if the merger does go ahead, ensuring that real power lies with the membership will be a major challenge for activists.