IN many quarters it is being said that Mr. Woodcock's hopes for modernising the unions are failing. but this is at best a premature view and probably quite untrue. Admittedly, on paper, nothing has happened since last year's TUC to suggest that major changes are imminent. But the mood for change is there, as it was last September, and the next 12 months may see some substantial developments.
The evolutionary tempo is bound to be a little slow. In a certain sense, trade unionists are notoriously conservative. They were rooted and formed in a past when every inch of the way towards basic social justice had to be bitterly fought for, and some elements on both sides of industry have done a whale of a job in keeping class warfare and suspicion alive.
But more and more union men are coming to see the need for extensive amalgamations among unions now defeating their own and each other's ends by multiplicity and a division of effort. By pooling financial resources and organisation they know they can improve the pace arid efficiency of their efforts, not only in negotiations hut in adult education and the extension of union benefits.
The success of the Fawley agreement has proved to some that a relaxation of demarcation rules, far from reducing the worker's earnings and security, can have the reverse effect, and, in the long run, open the door to expansion. Some suspicions endure, of course.
There is always the fear that similar experiments, in areas with insufficient alternative industry to absorb even a minimal number of redundant workers, may create a serious unemployment problem. But there is an answer to this.
The country's employers are already amalgamating and this would give a more strongly knit trade union movement every opportunity to demand concerted action by major industries to provide ambulance measures to cope with temporary unemployment, to ease the transfer process by training and financial aid, and to set up new industries where titey are most needed.
One of the most important resolutions put down for next week's TUC comes from the Electrical Trades Union. It proposes that officials on union federations and on national joint councils should have powers•to make decisions without having to report back to the individual unions for instructions after every discussion with the management side.
This would avoid the terrible problems created when the constituent unions take opposing views of the situation, and would be of paramount importance for civil aviation, the Ford plants, and the Shipbuilding and Engineering Confederation.
The builders have already given an indication of what this can lead to in the National Federation of Building Trade Operatives. A general tendency in this direction would also encourage the TUC to go on making more vigorous use of its powers to intervene in disputes imperilling large numbers of workers.
The concept of one union for each industry rather than each trade has been buried, in spite of the interest roused by the TUC study of the Swedish system. Even Mr. Woodcock. who favours the idea in principle. sees little chance of it taking root here. It would take at least a generation to unravel the existing structures, and the mammoth unions with members in nearly every industry would certainly oppose it. But amalgamations and closer collaboration can still offer a working compromise.
Above all. the regular confrontation at federation level of full-time officials with real 'powers to act could build up enduring personal relationships yielding a new confidence between the two sides of industry. Without that conlidence, workers will never learn to see their claims in the context of the national good, and unions will continue to hold in the highest suspicion any suggestion of a national incomes policy. Until there iv such a policy, however, the endless alteration of inflation and antiexpansionary measures will continue to throttle the economy.
Finally, confidence is needed if the unions are to co-operate in the enquiry now certain, whichever party wins the election. Trade union law is a jungle, and, while some see Rookes v. Barnard as applicable only to cases where a conteact is broken and a third party injured, others believe it could allow any citizen to sue the Electricity Board if the ETU went on strike. We are quite possibly back in Taff Vale. To stay there when the break-through in modernisation is probably near at hand would be the height of folly.