New breed of British trade unionists tries to shore up a crumbling movement

Meet Bob Harvey, young, articulate, pin-stripe-suited British trade unionist. Yes, that's right, pin-stripe-suited trade unionist. In practically every respect - appearance, speech, and occupation - he defies the hoary old stereotypes of what a trade unionist is supposed to be.

The emergence of Bob Harvey and other trade unionists like him is as much a reflection of the transformation of the British trade union movement as it is a mirror of the significant changes taking place in British society.

The Trades Union Congress, the oldest organization of its kind in the world, now meeting in annual session here, is changing its character.

The TUC has switched from an almost exclusively male, manually skilled organization to a body of increasingly clerical, white-collar workers. One-third of its members are now women.

What this means is that many trade unionists may still have strong political ties with other blue-collar workers or with the Labour Party, but their emotional feelings cannot be the same. And for good reason. They have had no background of trade union struggle of fathers and grandfathers who have been down coal mines before them or involvement in the 1926 general strike, which starved the miners into submission.

Bob Harvey, for instance, is not a coal miner, a dockworker, a steelworker, a locomotive engineer, or a Coventry car worker - the traditional props of the British trade union movement, which is going through its worst period in 50 years.

He is not a sloganizer or a placard carrier, although he supports the striking miners both in spirit and with hard cash, doling out hardship money every week to distressed mining families.

When he mingles with the thousand and more TUC delegates here, his conversation carries distinct middle-class inflections compared to the many down-to-earth, workaday Lancashire and Yorkshire accents around him.

His union is headquartered not in a working-class district, but in suburban Wimbledon, home to the world's premier tennis tournament.

There is one more apparent anomaly about Bob Harvey, which is not his real name, as he does not want to be identified:

His union, the Bankers, Insurers, and Finance Union, has been the fastest-growing one since 1979, while the TUC as a whole is experiencing staggering membership losses.

This decline not only undermines the TUC's bargaining power. It also diminishes the political clout of an organization that was instrumental in defeating successive Conservative and Labour governments in the 1970s.

Bob Harvey elaborates on the magnitude of the TUC's problem:

''The TUC has lost 2 million members since 1979. The UK economy has lost 2 million jobs since 1979. We're losing a thousand manufacturing jobs a day. We've gone from 12.2 million members in 1979 to 10.1 million members. We're saying that by the end of this year we'll be down to 9.6 million members. That's another half a million jobs.''

To this TUC delegate the future doesn't augur well for the movement because the growth of new jobs is not in manufacturing, the traditional area of TUC membership, but in high-tech information and similar areas which have no history of trade unionism and where the recruiting does not look particularly fertile.

Bob Harvey also says the influx of foreign companies, particularly American and Japanese, is unsettling because they are considered less sympathetic to unionization.

Thus the TUC faces an uncertain future, a government the unions say is hostile to their movement, and record high unemployment of approximately 3.1 million.

A foreign diplomat who specializes in British labor relations is nonplused that with such high unemployment there have no been major outbursts of protest and social unrest.

Asked in a recent interview why this has not occurred, Ron Todd, general secretary-elect of Britain's largest single trade union, the Transport and General Workers Union, suggested fear was a motivation.

''We have 3 million unemployed and 23 million frightened to death about the future. After five years of Thatcher government, trade unionism is at its lowest level.''

Although he concedes inevitable economic consequences have taken their toll, he blames Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her monetarist policies for undermining the trade union movement and shattering the welfare state.

For Mr. Todd, a prominent left-winger, and many other union leaders, the difficulties have been compounded by an attitudinal problem. ''We have a government where there is no dialogue,'' he says.

Trade unionists charge that whenever the TUC has offered any signs of give, they have been turned down and ''kicked in the face.'' The government is also accused of proceeding with trade union reform without any prior consultation with the TUC.

The current setbacks to the union, in which they have appeared to be on the defensive, and the Thatcher government on the offensive, suggest the industrial boot is now on the other foot in Britain.

Through the 1970s the public mood, which was once sympathetic to the dark and dangerous work of the miners, turned against the trade union movement.

Unions were seen to be holding the country for ransom through soaring wage claims and perpetual industrial disputes.

Thinking at first that the way to placate the powerful unions was to accommodate them, the electorate in 1974 voted out Edward Heath's Conservative government, which had set about disciplining the unions but failed dismally.

Yet any hope that the incoming Labour Party with its traditional close links to workers would have any greater success in keeping trade unions in line proved illusory. The public, soured by piles of uncollected garbage and by other strikes and high wage settlements, responded to the winter of discontent of 1978 -79 by throwing out the Labour government of James Callaghan. As a result of public hostility to the unions, Mrs. Thatcher assumed on assuming office that she had a mandate to control the unions.

A lawyer who specializes in trade union legislation says: ''From 1972 to 1979 the unions were seen as virtually running the country or having a big hand in policy without being accountable.''

An industrial source says that what Britain needs is ''a more sensible balance of power.''

He is critical of Fleet Street; he says unions, not management fill jobs in the print room. ''Isn't that a clear abdication of responsibility on the part of management? We have to assert the role of management.''

Yet union and business leaders take issue with the popular image that Britain is torn apart by industrial disputes and recurring strikes.

In an interview in London before the TUC congress, Gavin Laird, a union moderate and general secretary of Britain's second-largest union, the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, indicated Britain's strike record was not nearly so bad as people believed.

According to Mr. Laird, figures from the International Labor Organization show that, in terms of days lost through strikes, Britain's record is ''much better than Canada by a long, long way. Streets ahead of the US, miles ahead of Ireland, and in the same ballpark area as Italy although far worse than Japan, West Germany, or Switzerland.''

From the business side comes a similar view. Notwithstanding the miners' strike, an official of the Confederation of British Industry says ''95 percent of all British firms are operating without dispute.''

The government believes that a raft of trade union legislation will strengthen industrial relations by making union leadership more democratic and more accountable through eliminating secondary picketing, opening up the closed shop, requiring union leaders to keep an up-to-date register of their membership , and make unions themselves, and not just individual members, liable to penalties under the law.

As much as the unions resent this meddling in their affairs, their ability to resist, short of actual violence, is limited.

The government enjoys a hefty majority in Parliament, which explains why its legislation passes.

The government seems to be winning the propaganda war, saying it is motivated by the need for law and order and that union resistance is sparked not for industrial, but political reasons.

Violent confrontations in the coalfields between picketing miners and police tend to strengthen that impression.

Bill Keys, a left-winger and leader of SOGAT '82, the Society of Graphic and Allied Trades, made no bones about the fact that TUC actions should be political to counter the political policies of the Thatcher government:

''It would be suicide for the unions to neglect the political act as it is to neglect the industrial act,'' he said forcefully from the podium. ''Both are complementary,'' he said, adding that a contest was under way in the country between the haves and have-nots, a contest sharpened by a government intent on destabilizing the unions.

How effective or united such action can be is another matter. Union solidarity has been fractured so badly that there are even doubts being raised as to whether the TUC can survive.

A day of action called by the unions in 1980 to demonstrate opposition to the government produced in the words of a leading trade union official ''a nil response.''

''There are a number of things,'' he said in an interview, ''where we can't deliver the goods on.''

At its annual meetings here in the seaside resort of Brighton, the TUC squelched those critics who said the organization was too divided to support the striking miners by doing precisely that.

But the agreement was more a declaration of hope than intent. For all its skillful, behind-the-scenes maneuvering it is meaningless unless individual unions are committed not to cross miners' picket lines.

Both the power and the steelworkers - the two unions on which compliance is essential if the resolution is to work - have stated categorically they won't do it.

If the TUC doesn't deliver on its pledge to the miners, it will strain its credibility.

A recent poll conducted for the Sunday Times indicates a wide gulf in the attitudes on the miners' cause between union officials (more radical) and their rank and file (more conservative and more critical).

That split also underscores a realization that union ties are more tenuous as workers feel less need for the support and protection of a union.

There is a growing impression that until the TUC can cement agreements with its member unions and unions keep their rank and file in tow, the TUC will remain increasingly vulnerable to new economic forces and the political will of the Thatcher government.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.