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Facing up to Thatcherism: The History of NALGO, 1979-93. (International and Comparative Industrial Relations).

Facing up to Thatcherism: The History of NALGO, 1979-93. By Mike Ironside and Roger Seifert. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. xxiv, 420 pp. ISBN 0-19-924075-2, $60.00 (cloth).

The past two decades have not been happy ones for the British trade union movement. Since the election of Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party in 1979, union membership has fallen by more than 40%, the coverage of collective bargaining has halved, the once dense network of corporatist institutions has all but disappeared, and the capacity of unions to engage in industrial conflict has eroded to the point that strike levels are now lower than at any time since record-keeping began at the end of the nineteenth century. Membership, collective bargaining coverage, and the wider political and social influence of the labor movement have fallen to interwar levels. The four years since a Labour government was elected to replace the Conservatives in 1997 have seen some stabilization of the position of the trade unions, but no dramatic reversal of fortune.

The book under review examines the experience of NALGO (the National and Local Government Officers' Association), the main white-collar union in Britain's public sector, during almost a decade and a half of Conservative rule, ending in 1993 with the merger of three public sector unions, including NALGO, to create UNISON (which is not an acronym), which became the largest union in Britain. This is a very fine case study of how trade unionism experienced "high Thatcherism," made all the better because NALGO was a public sector union. As such, the book charts the effects not only of the Conservative legislative assault on trade unionism and collective bargaining, but also of the extensive reforms of the public sector, including, but not limited to, the privatization of most of the nationalized sector.

Facing up to Thatcherism is the third volume of the official history of NALGO, the earlier volumes taking the story from the union's founding in 1905 to 1965 and 1978, respectively. Unlike the earlier volumes, this one was not written by NALGO officials, but rather by two well-respected academic researchers.

Official histories of institutions have particular strengths and weaknesses. On the one hand, their authors have good access to union archives and interviews with union officials at all levels. This access, combined with the theoretical perspective of academic researchers, provides for an unusually thoughtful and reflective history. The first chapter of this volume, for example, lays out a theoretical framework for thinking about trade unions and their members as agents exercising strategic choice in the face of sharp economic and political constraints. On the other hand, criticism of the decisions and strategic directions taken by the union leadership is bound to be muted. There are several occasions when the internal debate that led up to an announcement of NALGO policy is alluded to rather than examined closely; the politics of NALGO decision-making is too often merely identified by label ("ultra-left," "broad left," "centre-right") rather than described in terms of the content of the arguments being made by antagonists within the union.

One needs to understand the earlier history of NALGO to make sense of its development after 1979. The two earlier volumes covering the years 1905-78 are usefully summarized in the second chapter of this volume. They tell the story of almost unbroken expansion for NALGO, piggy-backing on the expansion of the British public sector, as NALGO came to represent white-collar workers not simply in local government, but also in education, health, and the public sector utilities (gas, water, and electricity). As it expanded, NALGO became an increasingly assertive and militant union, engaging in national collective bargaining after World War II, putting a strike clause in its rule book in 1961, affiliating with the Trades Union Congress in 1965, and calling strikes in the 1970s. This process continued after 1979, with NALGO creating a political fund in 1988, rejecting Conservative industrial relations legislation in toto, and becoming one of the unions most critical of the rightward drift of the Labour Party. While the union's opponents derisively characterized NALGO as "Tories led by Trots," the authors of this book do an impressive job of demonstrating how public sector restructuring contributed to a homogenization and decline in status of white-collar workers in the public sector; the growing militancy of NALGO thus reflected this shift in the interests of its members.

There are numerous accounts of the public sector restructuring that took place under the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 1990s (and continue under the current Labour government), but reading this book, one is struck by the scale and scope of that process. NALGO faced the privatization of the gas, water, and electricity industries, compulsory contracting out of services in local government, deep cuts in the revenue available for local government, the increasing independence of schools, doctors, and hospitals from local government control, the decentralization of collective bargaining, the derecognition of unions for certain categories of white-collar staff, the spread of performance-related pay, the imposition of flexibility agreements, and seemingly endless rounds of managerial reorganization.

NALGO fought every single one of these changes, and it lost on nearly every occasion. While it had some success in maintaining the wages of its members, and scored a few victories--the most noteworthy of which capped a' 1989 strike of half a million local government workers--NALGO was simply unable to prevent the government from going ahead with public sector restructuring. This was despite recourse to both traditional strike tactics and innovative public relations campaigns designed to win the support of the users of public services.

Primarily because of its chronological structure, this book does not offer an overall assessment of union strategy, of what worked and what did not. Reading accounts of each bargaining round and each set of Conservative reforms encourages a sense that "one damn thing after another" happened with no breathing space for evaluation. That is probably an accurate representation of what it felt like for NALGO, but it would be helpful to stand back and see if anything NALGO did might have been more effective. The answer is probably no, because of the unassailable electoral position of the government, and its total unwillingness to compromise on its program. But certainly NALGO was hampered in its actions by internal divisions that were the product of public sector restructuring; privatization, for example, meant that NALGO came to have members in both the public and private sectors, each with somewhat different interests.

The most important areas of strategic reorientation on the part of NALGO came where the union was able to act without concern for the state: its own internal organization and practices. Of greatest importance was the merger in 1993 that ended NALGO's independent existence. The merger was largely defensive; it permitted some efficiencies in the provision of bargaining and other services, and above all, it made it much harder for a government to derecognize, or attempt to isolate, one of the public sector unions. There is surprisingly little in this book about the internal debates over the merger, particularly concerns over how quite different political cultures would merge, and over the radical equal opportunity structures that were created within the new merged union. This is an area where greater attention to the politics of NALGO, and to the critics of its leadership, would have been helpful. That said, this is a very fine union history, capturing the experience of union members during a period of exception al turbulence and state hostility.
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Author:Howell, Chris
Publication:ILR Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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