‘Oh, all right then’: The mirage of white-collar union power

Work has dried up. We no longer get our sales-sheets and telephone lists in the morning… Yesterday, a man called Veale with an immensely calm and sinister voice rang me from the Union. He’s coming to see me, he says.
Martin Amis, Success (Jonathan Cape, 1978)

More than 30 years ago, when sequestrating trade union assets was all the rage among members of our judiciary, a colleague and I were engaged in what we would doubtless have described as a ‘race against time’ had we been reporting on the event rather than participating in it. He was treasurer for our area branch of the National Union of Journalists, I was membership secretary and both our signatures would be needed to withdraw the whole of our branch’s funds, in cash, on the spot.

From memory, the union at a national level had potentially got itself on the wrong side of the law in the industrial dispute involving Eddy Shah’s Warrington Messenger group, although it may have been another, similar episode. It was a Friday and we were hoping to pre-empt what was thought to be an imminent High Court order. Branch officials across the country were, we assumed, doing the same thing.

With the money safely withdrawn, beyond the reach of the judges, we divided it into small parcels and handed it to fellow journalists for safe keeping over the weekend. Come Monday, and matters had calmed down somewhat. The branch’s funds re-emerged from their hiding places in bedsit-land and house-share world and were eventually returned to the bank.

This reminiscence was prompted by a line in the Daily Telegraph on 30 July to the effect that Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for the Labour leadership had won the support of yet another trade union, the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA). The paper went on to quote general secretary Manuel Cortes: ‘People are fed up of machine politicians who never give an answer. Jeremy is straight-talking and puts forward sensible policies which resonate with ordinary people.’

Well, I certainly agree with the first of those sentiments and I doubt that I am alone. More remarkable, from a personal point of view, is that, for what I believe is the first time in my life, I can actually name the general secretary of the TSSA.

For the uninitiated, this is the third railway union, the one that everyone forgets about, the one without Bob Crow-type leaders. In the language of 30 years ago, the ‘white-collar’ rail union.

The TSSA was the white-collar rail union in the sense that the NUJ was the white-collar media union. The ‘white-collar’ designation translated as ‘nowhere near as effective as their blue-collar equivalents’, in these cases respectively the NUR (later the RMT) and ASLEF, and the four (later two, after mergers) print unions. It was the same in local government, where the desk jockeys of NALGO had rather less clout than the mass ranks of NUPE and the GMWU. And in the coalfields (remember them?), the British Association of Colliery Management never quite had the heft of the old NUM, to put it mildly. (To save time here, I’ve listed the full names of all these organisations below, although it would be a shame at this stage not to mention that despairing would-be NALGO militants claimed the initials stood for Not A Lot Going On.)

The curious thing, however, is that the supposed ineffectuality of the white-collar unions went hand in hand with a belief that the future belonged to them. Here is the view from 1972:

One third of British union members are now office, as opposed to factory, workers. The balance will continue to swing away from manual workers as teachers, salesmen and computer-programmers inherit the earth.

This was the key assumption underpinning the view of a white-collar future for trade unionism, the assumption that, as time went by, more and more jobs would involve clerical, supervisory or technical employment that would fall firmly into the category of ‘workers by brain’ rather than that of ‘workers by hand’. Pre-war, however, it may have been assumed that this process would have the effect of weakening trade union membership rather than of transferring members from blue to white-collar organisations. (Indeed, this was to happen, but we are getting ahead of ourselves).

In the climate of the late 1960s and the 1970s, an era of high inflation and pay controls, banding together to maintain ‘differentials’ became increasingly popular as clerical, managerial, professional and scientific personnel flocked to unions such as ASTMS and APEX, on the principle that if you can’t beat them, join them. Fearful of inflation, much of the middle class took refuge in collective action; not so much dropping their ‘aitches’ as losing their definite articles, talking of ‘management’ and ‘conference’ like so many well-modulated Red Robbos.

A central figure in this development was Clive Jenkins, general secretary of ASTMS from 1970 to 1988, a regular on television and a fluent and persuasive public speaker. ‘A professional worker can feel at home with the Jenkins style, but he can also feel reasonably confident that Jenkins will help to ensure that he is not overtaken by those ravening hordes of manual workers.

Jenkins believed his potential catchment area comprised two million or so employees. By 1980, membership was over 400,000, against fewer than 100,000 ten years earlier. The other ‘general’ white-collar union, APEX, accounted for about 151,000 members, up from just over 118,000 in 1972. In the heady atmosphere of growing numbers, it was possible to believe that here were the TGWU and AUEW of the future; that the white-collar unions would prove to be the mighty labour syndicates of the second (or was it third?) industrial revolution.

Bolstering this was the assumption that, in cases where white-collar employment was growing alongside declining blue-collar positions the bargaining power of the latter would transfer to the former. Thus in sectors such as water and sewerage, power generation, iron and steel, textiles, food manufacturing and chemicals, industrial strength would shift from the displaced men in overalls, their jobs automated out of existence, to a new breed of white-coated technicians and specialist office personnel.

This was certainly thought to be the case in the newspaper industry, whose famously militant print workers wielded a negotiating clout that had long been the envy of journalists. With most of ‘the inks’ finally on the way out after the 1986 Wapping debacle, the way seemed clear for ‘the hacks’ to inherit their veto on the production process.

On the railways, with the early-1980s air thick with talk of train design moving rapidly to OMO (one-man operation) and then NoMO (no-man operation), the fight was on for a place in the remaining areas of employment and for a hand on the controls of the national train set. The TSSA was certainly a contender, but, as Alan Williams of Modern Railways magazine pointed out in 1983, its members were not alone in believing they were ‘special’ rail employees with a claim on the future. Train drivers, long considered (not least by themselves) to be elite craft workers, expected to retain oversight of train movements regardless of technical change, while signalling staff also thought themselves a cut above ordinary railway workers and had direct experience of remote monitoring of trains using the latest technology.

This notion that industrial unions could ‘follow the work’ by reinventing themselves (in part, at least) as white-collar organisations was seen in the newspaper business, where – not long before the Wapping lock-out – it was suggested that the two print unions, the NGA and SOGAT, would drop all opposition to ‘new’ (it wasn’t very) technology in return for what was known as ‘a third-a third-a third’, a long-forgotten formula under which each new eligible recruit to the workforce, regardless of their job, skill or trade, would be assigned to either of those unions or the NUJ, depending on which needed a new member to keep its 33 per cent share of the available membership.

Less rococo was the response of those industrial unions that chose to ‘follow the work’ by setting up white-collar sections. The GMWU established MATSA in 1972, two years after the AUEW had acquired the draughtsmen’s union DATA and transformed it into its technical, administrative and supervisory section, TASS.

Of all the specialist white-collar unions, TASS was one of the most successful in terms of securing better pay and conditions for its members. But then:

It is among the technicians and draughtsmen, much closer to the working class in background, that more militant steam can be generated.

In fact, there have always been specialised professional or technical unions capable of wielding serious clout, such as those representing airline pilots, air-traffic controllers, radiographers, driving examiners, passport and border control staff … and so on. The common factor is the ability to cause public disruption. What was thought to be on offer from the late 1960s to the end of the Thatcher years was the prospect of powerful organisations representing the generality of white-collar workers and doing so in a way that mirrored the (then) largely successful efforts of industrial unions.

It was not to be. ASTMS and APEX no longer exist, having been absorbed into giant blue-collar organisations, respectively Unite and the GMB (successor to the GMWU). Far from taking over from their industrial predecessors, they have themselves been subsumed.

Of course, the union landscape overall is much diminished, from a peak of 13 million members in 1979 to 6.4 million in 2014. In the specific context of white-collar trade unions, the failure to scale the heights mapped out in the early 1970s can, perhaps, be ascribed to two factors.

The first is that the onward march of white-collar employment has not proved to be all-conquering. Here are some figures from the most recent Labour Force Survey from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). (I shall be excluding throughout the self-employed, there being little point in their inclusion in a discussion of trade unionism.)

The total number of ‘managers, directors and senior officials’ is 2.3 million. They are joined by 5.3 million in ‘professional occupations’, including doctors, scientists and lawyers.

‘Associate professionals’, a huge category ranging from ambulance staff to sports people, from health and safety officers to sales personnel, accounts for another 3.6 million.

Finally, there are the ‘administrative and secretarial occupations’ in which labour 3.1 million people.

That is, on the widest definition, the UK’s employed white-collar workforce, totalling 14.3 million people.

Now for the employed manual workforce: 2.1 million in ‘skilled trades and occupations’, 1.6 million in the category ‘process, plant and machine operatives’ and three million in ‘elementary occupations’ ranging from farm labourers to window cleaners to bar staff.

The total is 6.7 million. So far, white-collar employment is well ahead.

But then comes what has perhaps been the real employment growth story of recent decades: services. In the category ‘caring, leisure and other service occupations’, ranging from childminders and care workers to hairdressers, are 2.5 million people. In ‘sales and customer service occupations’, everything from cashiers and window dressers to telephone sales people and market researchers, are found another 2.2 million.

Against the 14.3 million who are in white-collar employment, there are 11.4 million who are not. The white-collar total is not quite as impressive as one may have expected, given that, according to the House of Commons Library, the manufacturing payroll shrank from 4.3 million in 1992 to 2.6 million last year.

The second factor frustrating the predicted triumph of white-collar trade unionism has been a long-standing lack of militancy among the membership. In part this may be because said members often aspire to join the ranks of management rather than engage in ‘struggle’ with ‘the bosses’. In part it may stem from a cultural reluctance to cause a fuss. In 2012, on the eve of the London Olympics, immigration and passport officers belonging to the Public and Commercial Services Union had been due to strike. Facing a barrage of accusations of ‘sabotaging the Olympics’, the union backed down.

There is, of course, one branch of white-collar unionism whose members are quite happy to inflict disruption on the public – specifically, on working parents – and who routinely ‘boycott’ aspects of their job of which they disapprove. In summer 2014 they even managed to get a Conservative cabinet minister (and supposed friend of the prime minister) sacked. Here, in the school staffroom, the spirit of the early 1970s lives on, perhaps improbably.

Let us end where we began, with the ‘race against time’.

With the money stashed away, the branch treasurer and I headed for the pub. Reflecting over a pint, he suggested that the NUJ would probably buckle were there to be serious judicial pressure.

I demurred.

‘What,’ he demanded, ‘is the union’s motto?’

‘I didn’t know it had one.’

‘Unofficial motto, then?’


‘Oh, all right then.’


Tony Dubbins, general secretary of the once blue-collar NGA, on the picket line during the Wapping dispute in 1986.

In order of appearance: National Union of Railwaymen; Rail, Maritime and Transport Union; Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen; National and Local Government Officers’ Association; National Union of Public Employees; General and Municipal Workers’ Union; National Union of Mineworkers; Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs; Association of Professional, Executive, Clerical and Computer Staff; Transport and General Workers’ Union; Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers; National Graphical Association; Society of Graphical and Allied Trades; Managerial, Administrative, Technical and Supervisory Association; Draughtsmen and Allied Technicians’ Association. The GMB insists its initials no longer stand for anything, but after a merger of the GMWU with the ASBSBSW (Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers, Shipwrights, Blacksmiths and Structural Workers) in 1982 it was for a while GMBATU (the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trade Union); one mustn’t, it would appear, forget the boilermakers.

One thought on “‘Oh, all right then’: The mirage of white-collar union power

  1. “The second factor frustrating the predicted triumph of white-collar trade unionism has been a long-standing lack of militancy among the membership.” A key factor here is house ownership. White collar workers had something extremely tangible to lose from going on strike for a long period of time and especially from taking part in illegal industrial action. It was also the reason why the ‘loony left’ councils’ threats to not set a budget never materialised: the councillors would have lost their homes. The way in which home ownership gave people a stake in capitalism was something that Thatcher understood and which the current Tory government sleepwalking towards a Corbyn government does not.


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