Striking similarities? Unionisation in the US and UK


Britain and America have seen a boom in union activity, yet this trend looks set to play out differently across both nations

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Image by Joe Piette

By Alexandre Freiherr Von Hornstein

The political landscapes of the US and UK have often mirrored each other. Both countries were led by the stalwart neoliberals, Reagan and Thatcher, during the 1980s, and by advocates of Third Way Centrism in Clinton and Blair during the 1990s. Both partook in the invasion of Iraq, and both would see a surge in populist rhetoric from 2016 onwards.

Whilst the joint cooperation in the invasion of Iraq might be pinned on the “special relationship” the US and UK have, a concept at times denied as nothing but a myth, there is no denying the similarities in political happenings despite vast differences in their respective political apparatuses. Whilst both Congress and Parliament have been in recess throughout the summer, neither have shown much initiative in the midst of a cost of living crisis. The former likely due to division between the House and Senate and the looming midterm elections. The latter seemingly unwilling to take steps until a new government is formed. And it is during this time that unions, in both countries, have made their presence known.

Unions in the UK have already taken part in numerous strikes. Indeed the largest rail strike in thirty years occurred on 21 June, with more than 40 thousand rail staff walking out. Whilst the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) might be heading the largest strikes, with its leader Mike Lynch often the main union representative in interviews and debates, other unions have also taken action. The Communication Workers Union (CWU) organised strikes against British Telecom (BT) in late June and early August, the first of their kind since 1987. Further action was taken after CWU members voted overwhelmingly in favour of strikes against the Royal Mail, with the first two strikes in late August seeing over a hundred thousand members partake. Further strikes had been planned during September, but have since been postponed following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. With the former Transport Secretary Grant Shapps having already announced plans to enable emergency powers to enforce minimum service and raise the required threshold of support for strikes, an amicable accord between the government and union heads is unlikely.

In the US, no strikes of similar magnitude have occurred. Yet 2022 has been a year of firsts for unionisation efforts across the country. Workers for major firms such as Amazon, Chipotle, Apple, Starbucks, and Google have, in the past few months, unionised for the first time. And whilst these might start in a few stores or branches of major firms, a ripple effect has taken place. The first Starbucks workers to unionise did so in late December in a few branches in Buffalo. As of writing this article, 200 branches of Starbucks have unionised, with more currently exploring the possibility.  This is not solely restricted to those working in the private sector, with staffers in Capitol Hill having made ground as the House of Representatives recently voted in favour of their unionisation.

Beyond grassroots movements to unionise workers, established unions have taken a tougher stance and seem willing to strike if need be. The most notable example of this is the Teamsters Union, which under its new General President Sean O’Brien, is willing to have its 360,000 UPS drivers strike should terms be unfavourable by the end of the current contract, which expires next July. And whilst a tentative deal was recently reached with three of the 12 unions representing railroad workers , there is a chance for the remaining nine unions to strike should they not accept the current deal. Yet considering President Biden's Build Back Better Plan exposes the virtue of good paying union jobs, and the deal reached was mediated by a new emergency board formed by the Biden administration, there is a clear difference in the current UK and US government attitude towards unions.

Beyond both nations seeing a similar boom in union activity, they share a similar history. Unions in both countries reached their peak membership numbers in the late 1970s, with 12 million in the UK and 21 million in the US. In the 1980s, with Thatcher and Reagan respectively in power, a pivotal confrontation won by the fiscally conservative governments against a powerful union set in motion legislation and precedent that greatly reduced union power. In the UK, this was Thatcher's victory over the National Union of Miners (NUM) during the 1984-1985 strikes. In the US, this turning point was in 1981 when President Reagan fired over eleven thousand striking air traffic controllers, strikers who were part of a union in the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (PATCO) that had backed his presidential campaign. Furthermore, Reagan had barred said workers from ever working on a federal level, a ban that was only lifted in 1993 by President Clinton.

There are however clear distinctions between the US and UK history with unions and their interactions with the political class. Thatcher was adamantly against the unions, famously referring to them as the ‘enemy within’ whilst Reagan had courted the endorsement of unions. The Democratic Party, whilst traditionally seen as more aligned to the goals of unions, is not a worker’s party, nor do trade unions play a role in choosing candidates as they do with the UK’s Labour Party. These dynamics of the two major parties in the respective countries have both remained as before and changed. Both the Conservative Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the US remain as before, with the former currently pushing to ban strikes amongst public workers and the latter being generally unwilling to work with unions, focussing more so on issues such as inflation and the 2020 election. Yet the Democratic Party and the Labour Party have somewhat changed their tune. Whilst Democrats have always been more partial to unions,  President Biden has made active efforts to negotiate with them and has even placed the need for good, well-paid union jobs as part of his Build Back Better Plan. Contrast this with the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer discouraging shadow ministers from joining the picket line, arguing that a party seeking to govern cannot take sides in the current disputes, a line ignored by some frontbenchers such as former Shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry and Shadow Secretary for Levelling Up Lisa Nandy.

The recent history, and current boom, of unions in both Anglosphere nations mirror each other in interesting ways. Yet the outcome of all this is where I believe the US and UK will diverge. The current US government might be on a legislative tightrope of sorts, with midterms on the horizon and a razor thin margin in the Senate. However, it has shown a willingness to sit down with union representatives, with President Biden touting his support for unions in a speech on Labour Day. Moreover, whilst workers have only recently unionised, there is a clear momentum that enjoys the support of numerous members within the Democratic Party. The power held by individual states, towns and cities with the US also enables unions and workers seeking to unionise to slowly but surely build ground and make accords.

Conversely in the UK, local councils are somewhat restricted as Parliament is sovereign above all, a Parliament that has already shown an unwillingness to negotiate with unions and will likely remain as is until the next General Election in 2024. The newly elected Prime Minister Liz Truss has gone a step further, promising to impose a minimum service requirement and increase the threshold needed for industrial action from 40 per cent to 50 per cent. With unions unwilling to back down, and a Prime Minister seeking to emulate the Iron Lady, the UK could be heading towards another winter of discontent.