It appears that the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) will merge with the General Municipal and Boilermakers Union (GMB), adding to the latter’s list of acquired unions. This merger comes at a time of great financial strain for TSSA, who have already sold off most of its property in an effort to raise funds.
There is always something poignant about a union that has existed for decades, in TSSA’s case since 1897, ceasing to exist. At first glance, TSSA’s fate is indicative of the direction of travel within the trade union movement, which is towards more mergers into larger unions. At times this is because of industrial strategy, other times out of necessity. Often it appears expansion for the sake of expansion. Recently, the trend has accelerated. The United Construction Allied Trades and Technicians union (UCATT) merged with Unite in 2016, the same year that the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Communication, and Theatre Union (BECTU) merged with Prospect, and the National Union of Teachers and Association of Teachers and Lecturers merged to form the National Education Union in 2017.
GMB seems a better fit for TSSA than the merger proposed last year with the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers of the USA. The immediate implications of the merger are that GMB will receive a membership boost. TSSA’s latest annual return shows that it has 17,786 members in Britain (almost half of which are in London). It is also a further demonstration of GMB’s current expansionist approach. As well as being the first union to sign voluntary recognition agreements with Deliveroo, Uber and Apple, GMB has also recently launched branches for faith workers, and judges.
Its merger with TSSA could potentially mean future conflict with the RMT, but this will only become more apparent in the future. For some in the TSSA, the merger may well have come at a good time. A recent independent inquiry by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC (set up after the intervention of the TUC) found “a culture that is stuck, it seems, in a morass of staff upset and grievance – on matters relating not just to sexual harassment and assault – but also to the bullying, silencing and marginalising of staff.” It was recently announced that former TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes has been dismissed for gross misconduct, despite it being previously announced that he had retired and, according to Kennedy’s report, received payment from the union for doing so. Despite this, the merger process is still continuing.
Trade unions, by their nature, reflect and inform the economy that they exist in. It is almost certainly no coincidence that the decline of separate craft unions (even if some elements of craft unionism live on in the large amalgamations) has coincided with the general deskilling of work in the UK as many of the worlds of labour have ceased to exist. The reality is that it is very difficult to be a small union, success is normally rewarded by a larger union aping your approach and applying greater resources to the same issue while taking your members in the process. For instance, the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union, despite significant results industrially and, along with StrikeMap and Notes from Below, contributing to the creation of Organise Now, in its last annual return was listed as having only 15,701 members, in 2012 it had 21,438, and has lost members every year for the last decade.
While accelerated by falling union membership, mergers in the trade union movement are not a recent development. Even in the post-war period of increasing union membership and power, mergers were still fairly commonplace. GMB’s forerunner was the National Union of General and Municipal Workers (NUGMW) that was the result of the merging of the National Union of General Workers and the Municipal Employees Association in 1924. It merged with the Amalgamated Society of Boilermakers, Shipwrights, Blacksmiths and Structural Workers (ASBSBSW) in 1982 and came to use the name GMB in 1987.
Much of the changing character of unions, unsurprisingly, is demonstrated by their changing names. Whereas smaller sector or craft-based unions tend to give a specific indication of which workers they represented (e.g. the National Union of Hosiery and Knitwear Workers, NUHKW, now part of Community), larger union names now appear fairly anodyne.
Despite this, unpicking various union legacies does provide some insights into their character and shape. Unite, the UK’s second largest union, is the best example of this. Formed by the mergers of Amicus and the Transport and General Workers Union (which was formed as the result of the amalgamation of 14 unions in 1922). This resulted in a combination of elements of craft unionism on the Amicus side (which was the result of a series of mergers of ‘skilled’ electrical, scientific, finance, and engineering unions) and a less pretentious more general union approach.
This is why, on the one hand Unite still has strong holdouts among biomedical scientists in the NHS, a legacy from the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial, Staffs, ASTMS (the result of a merger of the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives, and Technicians and the Association of Scientific Workers in 1969), and bus drivers in drivers across the country courtesy of its TGWU roots.
Different, sometimes competing, traditions of labour can make the large general unions unwieldy beasts (as demonstrated by the heavily federalised GMB). This is exacerbated if one strain comes to be dominant, but it can also provide them with industrial opportunity as they cover different sectors of the economy. As the economy changes labour changes with it and having greater coverage means that unions are in a better place to understand and shape this change. Since the 20th century, consolidation has been the direction of travel for organised labour and GMB’s merger with TSSA is far from the first instance of this and it will not be the last, it is just the latest development in the constantly changing shape of trade unionism in the UK.