UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The lost world of Tory trade unionism

In the context of George Osborne's recent exhortations to big business to take up arms against unions, the suggestion by Tory MP Robert Halfon on the Conservative Home website that Tories should embrace trade unionism seems quixotic to put it mildly: http://bit.ly/kiqszn

However, as recently as the early 1990s the Conservative Party had a well organised network of trade union activists, notably in Nalgo one of the UNISON partner unions.

The late Nalgo/UNISON activist Richard Maybin, writing in 1980 about the union's leftwards transformation noted that there were 'many Conservative Party supporters in Nalgo who are politically opposed to Nalgo helping the Labour Party'. This included organised groups of Tories on the NEC and in several district (regional) councils.

Although in the post Cold War era the Nalgo Tories quickly vanished as an organised force - when they failed in their concerted opposition to both the creation of the new union in 1993 and the election of Rodney Bickerstaffe as General Secretary in 1995 - they had important antecedents in Nalgo. The union had been founded in 1905 by Herbert Blain, who later became Sir Herbert Blain, Principal Agent of the Conservative Party 1924-27. http://www.amielandmelburn.org.uk/collections/mt/pdf/80_01_17.pdf

It might come as a revelation to the new generation of UNISON activists that barely two decades ago the Tory Party had a formidable industrial organisation which is duly recorded in the Thatcher archives.

Addressing a conference of Conservative Trade Unionists in 1975 the newly elected Tory leader said 'as you well know, for over 100 years, ever since Disraeli's day, since before the Labour Party existed, it has been the belief of the Conservative Party that the law should not only permit, but that it should assist, the trades unions to carry out their legitimate function of protecting their members. I am pleased that it has been possible for me to come to your conference so soon after becoming the Leader of the Party. I hope that you will be joined by men and women of all parties or those with no party allegiance, in saving our unions and this country from extremism' http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/102456

In the 1980s organised Tories in Nalgo scored two notable 'victories'. In October 1984 the right mobilised branch support for a special national conference which resulted in the blocking of central union fundraising for the striking National Union of Mineworkers. In 1987 successful court action was taken to block the union's "Make People Matter" campaign. Although it was a Pyrrhic victory given that in NALGO's ballot, 77 per cent voted for a political fund, on a stunning 67 per cent turnout. "The political fund campaign was forced on us by anti-trade union legislation. Now NALGO can continue as a vigorous, campaigning union" said NALGO's then deputy general secretary, Alan Jinkinson when announcing the result in March 1988:

After 1995 UNISON Tories melted into air notwithstanding the bizarre emergence of a Scottish Branch Secretary as a Tory parliamentary candidate in the 2008 Glasgow East by-election:

For more information on the Conservative Party's relationship past and present with trade unions there is a very informative on-line report of a recent meeting of the History & Policy Trade Union Forum which addressed that subject: http://www.historyandpolicy.org/resources/union_meeting120311.html