Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World: British Trade Unions under New Labour

An analysis of workers' alliances should engage more with workers themselves, says Sian Moore

May 21, 2009

As it says on the tin, "unlike other volumes on trade unionism, Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World consistently relates its subject to its context - the current stage of capitalism and the dominant ideology which shapes economic, political and employment policies in Britain today". This context is new Labour's neoliberalism and, in this the book, unquestioningly delivers. Yet, by the end I felt absolutely crushed under the unrelenting weight of the structures and ideologies the authors describe and the utter pessimism that they engender.

This is in part because the editors, Gary Daniels and John McIlroy, not only provide the first five chapters, but also contribute two of the six chapters that comprise the second part of the book, on issues central to trade unionism. Here a wider range of contributors (and maybe even a woman?) would have lent more vitality; as it is, the structural constraints of neoliberalism are rehearsed and re-rehearsed.

Chapters by other contributors do provide relief - Dave Lyddon documents resistance in his exploration of industrial action and his conclusion is one of the few optimistic notes of the book: "prognostications of the 'death of the strike' will prove no more substantial than predictions of the dissolution of the working class or the demise of trade unionism". Martin Upchurch argues that partnership in industrial relations is a vehicle by which new Labour has attempted to introduce high-performance working on the basis of managerial prerogative, consensus and consultation, offering a critique of the claim that unions are a source of social capital enhancing business efficiency. Graham Taylor describes the way that British unions have invested "social Europe" with a key to union revitalisation and to the protection and expansion of workers' rights. All chapters draw upon an impressive range of secondary sources and are an excellent resource for teaching as well as essential reading for trade unionists and students of industrial relations.

As Paul Smith and Gary Morton state in their chapter documenting new Labour's hostility to any legal measures that may support effective trade unionism, "only by an acknowledgement of the values that lie within this project - the bitter fruit of neoliberalism - can effective opposition be mounted". There is a genuine dilemma for those of us who agree with the analysis of political and economic circumstances elaborated in this volume, while struggling to sustain the "audacity of hope" in change (something that by the end of the book felt not so much audacious, but an absolute bloody nerve).

In their introduction, Daniels and McIlroy ask "how unions can regain, or move significantly towards regaining, the place in the world they held during the postwar era"? They do not really answer this and, maybe unsurprisingly (their sheer pessimism must have left them emotionally exhausted), there is no conclusion to the volume. The nearest to an evocation of union strategy in the face of neoliberalism is Daniels' analysis of union organising, yet even this is qualified.

They are right that examples of mobilisation through union learning or organising campaigns are small-scale, yet they appear begrudging about what activism there is - as well as about the self-organisation of black workers and women and new forms of union representation (including union learning reps and equality reps). There is limited consideration of the external influences on trade unions provided by wider social or anti-capitalist movements or of the alliances that some unions have made with community organisations and networks.

This volume was written before the full impact of the global financial crisis that has rocked the neoliberal project. The crisis offers a new phase and opportunities for trade union activists, although there are few signs that their leaders are providing the political leadership that the book rightly argues is necessary and has been lacking. Trade unions are at one and the same time a manifestation of capitalism and a challenge to it, yet here there is only a limited sense of a dialectical relationship and a rather reified view of workers with little suggestion of the potential transformation of consciousness through experience, struggle, education or political engagement.

The editors of this book appear mesmerised by the structures they describe so powerfully but distanced from the agency of workers themselves - it is tempting to conclude that these grumpy old men should get out more.

Trade Unions in a Neoliberal World: British Trade Unions under New Labour

Edited by Gary Daniels and John McIlroy

Routledge, 400pp, £65.00

ISBN 9780415426633

Published 18 November 2008

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