Apathy and Centralisation
THERE are at present about 9½ million Trade Unionists, of whom more than 8 million are affiliated to the Trades Union Congress, as compared with 6 million and 4¾ million in 1938 The number of Trade Unionists has thus increased by more than one half, whereas the number of Trade Unions has been falling sharply-in the T U C from 216 in 1938 to 183 in 1955 Individual Unions have been getting bigger, as a consequence both of amalgamations and of successful recruiting of new members Over the same period, Trade Union bargaining has been getting more centralised, as well as spreading over a wider field
Branch Interest Lost In most industries to-day, wage-rates and general conditions are settled
by nation-wide bargaining or arbitration, which applies to large masses of workers This type of bargaining is necessarily done by quite small groups of full-time national officials and executive members, so that the local branches and shop organisations of the workers have only a remote part in it, though the members may be called upon to vote for or against a particular agreement, either directly by referendum or through some sort of delegate conference The result is that the average Trade Union branch or district has much less say than it used to have in bargaining about such matters and has come to deal much less with the fixing of wage-rates and general working conditions than with applying national agreements to local circumstances and traditions Such application, moreover, has to be done largely in each separate establishment, through shop stewards and shop committees, rather than in a whole town or district so that the branch or the district committee has lost power both to the centre and to the workplace organisation-above all, in engineering and in coal-mining These changes tend to make branch meetings both less important and less interesting than they used to be when bargaining was largely local and a go-ahead branch or district committee could affect local wages and conditions much more directly than it can to-day
The rise in membership has had another important effect Trade Unions, when they had fewer members, consisted mainly of those workers who were keener and more active than the rest But nowadays a great many workers belong to a Trade Union not because they are keen on it but because they have to in order to get or hold their jobs It is a natural consequence that the proportion of apathetic members has increased
Devolution the Answer Thirdly, it must not be forgotten that Trade Unions, like many other
bodies, have to face the competition of many more rival attractions than were open to their members in past years A Trade Union branch meeting needs to be more interesting and important than formerly in order to induce more than
a small number of members to attend it, but it is not at all easy to make such meetings interesting when they are dealing only with routine questions and there is nothing special afoot It is so easy to argue that it will make no difference whether one attends a particular meeting or not, and the habit of not attending, once formed, is not easily broken Moreover, the very acceptance of Trade Union membership by most employers as normal and natural makes it seem to many Trade Unionists less necessary to put in an attendance in order to manifest their solidarity with their fellow-workers.