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British Trade Unions since 1933

Author(s):Wrigley, Chris
Reviewer(s):Friedman, Gerald

Published by EH.NET (March 2004)

Chris Wrigley, British Trade Unions since 1933. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. viii + 106 pp. $40 (hardback), ISBN: 0-521-57231-2; $15 (paperback), ISBN: 0-521-57640-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerald Friedman, Department of Economics, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Professor of Modern British History at the University of Nottingham, Chris Wrigley prepared this volume for the Economic History Society as a summary text reviewing major issues in the history of British trade unions over the last seventy years. Despite its brevity, Wrigley’s text covers the most important topics in recent British history, including the rise of organized Labor in the mid-twentieth century, the role of unions in Britain’s survival and triumph in World War II, the question of a ‘British disease’ after World War II, and the decline of Labor since the election in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher. On each topic, Wrigley provides a succinct review of the major issues, a summary of recent scholarship, and a concise analysis. Both undergraduate and graduate students and all scholars unfamiliar with the terrain will find his work to be a useful introduction to the field.

Wrigley approaches British labor history judiciously, avoiding extreme statements or assertions of revolutionary changes. Instead, he emphasizes the continuity in British industrial relations and gradual historical change. He discounts, for example, arguments that the entry of Labor into Churchill’s wartime coalition governments marked a dramatic shift in the place of unions in British industrial relations. He acknowledges, for example, that British trade unions “emerged from the Second World War with both their size and their political and social status enhanced” (p. 7). But Wrigley also shows that union membership was growing rapidly even before the War, with half of the total growth in union membership for the 1935-45 period coming before 1939. Wrigley attributes much of the union growth in the 1930s to pro-union legislation and other state intervention in industrial relations by the National Government. Measures to rationalize wages and regulate competition, such as government sponsored Industrial Courts, had the effect of institutionalizing unions and insulating unionized firms and workers in them from nonunion competition. Wrigley questions whether these measures constitute full-blown corporatism in Britain. But they put wartime measures and union growth in a context of the longer term trend in British industrial relations towards corporatist-type arrangements.

Tight wartime labor markets and British Labor’s alliance with the government both contributed to continued rapid union growth during World War II. The appointment to the war cabinet of General Workers’ Union secretary general Ernest Bevin marked an explicit alliance of the British labor movement with the Churchill war government, and vice versa. Serving as Minister of Labor, Bevin supported regulations, such as the Emergency Powers (Defense) Act of 1940, that promoted production by restraining strikes and labor disputes. Wrigley outlines some of the concessions organized labor received in exchange for its support for production, including near automatic access to ministers and senior civil servants and regulations strengthening unions and their leadership. These two goals, maximizing production and strengthening unions, sometimes went together, such as when joint production committees of employers and trade union representatives were formed to discuss ways to boost production in the engineering and ordnance industries.

The involvement of unions in regulating labor relations and increasing production during World War II makes their post-war image particularly surprising. British unions were widely blamed for a ‘British disease’ where craft union organization led to disorderly labor relations, stagnant productivity, and inflationary wage settlements that forced monetary authorities to slow the economy. Drawing on an extensive scholarly literature, Wrigley defends British unions from most of these charges and denies that there was anything pathological about British industrial relations. Using comparative data on strike activity in ten industrialized economies, he shows that throughout the post-World War II period, the United Kingdom lost fewer workdays to strikes than most other countries. Wrigley also defends the macro-economic impact of British unions. Acknowledging that incomes policies were sometimes ineffectual, he vigorously defends them in general by arguing that agreements between governments and union leaders helped bring down inflation in some critical periods, such as when the Social Contract of the mid-1970s helped bring the inflation rate down quickly from 24 percent to 8 percent. Wrigley also cites evidence that incomes policies encouraged productivity bargains and sometimes fostered productivity growth.

After reaching over 12 million members in 1979, British trade union membership fell to barely 7 million members in 1997, or from over 50 percent of potential members to 30 percent. This marked a longer and further decline in union membership than in any previous period. Membership fell sharply during the Conservative Party governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major, 1979-97, and has risen since the return of the Labor Party to power. The political climate was hostile to trade unions under the Conservative governments and Wrigley reviews a long series of legislation enacted to hinder unions and to discourage strikes. Still, it is hard to see how any, or even all, of this legislation could explain the period’s dramatic union decline.

It is also hard to explain the union revival under Tony Blair’s Labor Party government. Wrigley cites various efforts by unions to adapt to declining membership, including the amalgamation of several unions to save on administrative expense and to reduce jurisdictional disputes, as well as conscious efforts to recruit women, members of minority groups, and service and professional workers. He also cites union attempts to provide greater services to members to convince members, and nonmembers, of the value of union membership, including services such as discount credit cards, life insurance, telephone help lines, and legal services. Wrigley believes that these have “played a part in the … stabilization of membership at the end of the century” (page 39). One may question this conclusion.

Chris Wrigley has written a useful little book. It may be used profitably in undergraduate courses in British History, European Economic History, or Labor History. And it may be of value to scholars looking for a quick introduction and review of recent developments in British labor history.

Gerald Friedman has written on the economic history of the United States and Europe, on labor economics, and on the history of economic thought. He is the author of Statemaking and Labor Movements: The United States and France, 1870-1914 (Cornell University Press, 1998), and numerous articles on American and French unionism and union membership decline in advanced capitalist economies. Currently, he is writing a study of union decline in advanced capitalist economies, and a study of the decline of institutional economics in the United States.

Subject(s):Labor and Employment History
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII