Sunday, 28 June 2009

What's the Point of Trade Union Leadership?


So much of my work these days focuses on trade union leadership particularly within the debate around decline and renewal. Amongst other areas of work I have been monitoring for the GFTU the roll-out of a pilot series of courses on leadership and management, accredited by the Institute for Leadership and Management (ILM), at Northern College.

This weekend I am teaching on a leadership development course that falls under the auspices of a 2008-10 GFTU-Ruskin College UMF project around researching and developing future leaders.

Just recently though I have been wondering about the role and significance of classic trade union leaders not least Ken Gill (pictured above) who sadly passed away recently. Even the right-wing press gave him grudging credit for his discipline, deceny and effectivness:

In contrast however, we have recently witnessed highly effective unlawful industrial action organised across the energy sector (Lindsey Oil Refinery strikers pictured left) by a different type of grassroots leadership acting autonomously, utilising ICT effectively and acting concertedly in the face of significant mangerial agression and transgression.

Gregor Gall has chronicled this phenomenon and in a piece in the Guardian in June stated:
The current dispute has two dimensions. One is that the workers concerned are capable and willing, unlike many other workers (unionised or not), to take robust collective action to defend their right to work in the midst of a recession. This comes down not just to being unionised but being well organised at the workplace level with shop stewards, mass meetings and a collective confidence to act. Underlying this is the nature of the labour market in the industry where job security is absent with building projects beginning and ending when completed, with employment contracts based on this.
See the full article at:

In thinking this through and placing it within the broader discussions around the future shape and function of trade unionism (particularly in the UK) the distinctions between transformational and transaction leaderships of old become very interesting.

I do ask trade union studies students of this subject what their perspective is of leadership for the future. Typically the reply is that it must be much more diverse, reflective of the views and aspirations of workers and supportive of methods to effect and reflect responsive in structure and policy - tall orders indeed!

At the same time however significant interest in this new layer of trade union education should, I think, be seen as one way to, albeit gradually, to question where we are going as a movement and to properly refine and understand who should be in the vanguard of this.

If I can pose a question here based on the title for this post - what's the point of trade union leadership?

Contributions very much welcome.




Never Surrender! said...

The current crop of trade union 'leaders' show that the movement doesn't have leaders and doesn't need their type.

Very few of this bunch have been prepared to take New Labour on head-on. Why only now is that UNISON for example are withdrawing money from MPs who don't subscribe to their policies?

Only when New Labour faces annihilation is there the most minor form of sanction to MPs who are probably going to lose their seat anyway.

Where have Prentis and his acolytes been as public sector workers have been kicked in the teeth time and time again by Blair/Brown/Darling and the rest.

If that's leadership - you can keep it.

As you said, whats the point of trade union leadership.

Ian Manborde said...

Thanks for the contribution.

I have to reply though that,a bit like the feedback from an essay, there is too little analysis in what you've written and no conclusion.

OK, so there are weaknesses on display but what's the prescription?

Our current models and structures to conceive trade union activity require forms of supervision and accountability. This requires leaders of different types, levels and function.

Relations with both employers, the state, government, supervisory and legal entities requires that there are people charged with decision making and taking - they become leaders by virtue of this office - who who'll do it? You?

Del Ansar said...


Heavy stuff all of this. I can see where you are coming from in relation to the strikes but they weren't something that I applauded beacuse of the 'British Jobs for British Workers' agenda that seemed to be what the strikers based their position of.

I can't see anyway how you change the current process of becoming a leader in a trade union anyway. Regardless of any training there will always be cliques/caucuses and if you are not in the right one you dont stand a chance.

Thats why I have said in the past to you I just keep my head down and do my best for members at my workplace. All the rest isnt important to me or then.

Hope that makes sense.


Wilf said...


Interesting discussion topic. For me the point of trade union leadership is to provide political leadership.

That might seem a bit trite but having lived through one merger as a trade union employee and observed others it seems to me that the current preoccupation with leaders of these unions is how to manage their new organisations. Management techniques are imported from the Cranfield School of Management.

Now don't get me wrong its not that I think that unions do not need to be well managed but if as I suspect that managerialism has becomes the raison d'ĂȘtre of our leaders then questions about the exercise of power become focused on internal control issues rather than externally on how to build power to make change in the workplace.

Ian Manborde said...

Hi Wilf,

Many thanks for the input.

I strongly agree with the concern that we need necessarily to look outside of the trade union movement e.g. business schools for best practice in leading unions.

Much has been written recently, for example, of the failure of business schools in educating those behind the scandals that led to the global recession.

Managerialism as you say has failed also as trade unions are not treated as the democratic, accountable, socially reconstructuve vehicle that they are.

One of the failures has been the assumption that talent will naturally rise (it does happen sometime) and come to lead. When in truth what rises is that which can best progress within elites and cultures.

Thanks again Wilf.