THE British trade union movement is a shadow of its former self, largely because of Margaret Thatcher's relentless assault on it and the subsequent changes in the British economy. Although Tony Blair has, just, kept the unions on side there have been none of the beer-and-sandwiches negotiating sessions at No 10 so common in Harold Wilson's days. It no longer matters greatly to the Labour Party what the TUC thinks provided, of course, the funds keep flowing to Labour's coffers. Yesterday's news of a major split in American trade unionism shows that in the United States also the power of old-style unionism is declining rapidly. If, as seems likely, the split takes place the Internatinal Brotherhood of Teamsters (truckers) and the Service Employees International Union will leave the AFL-CIO organisation which is the US equivalent of the British TUC. That would take roughly one quarter of the AFL-CIO membership away at a time that the membership has dropped alarmingly with only eight per cent of workers in private industry belonging to a union. Ineffective efforts to reverse that decline are at the heart of the dissatisfaction of the two departing unions which feel that the leadership of the AFL-CIO, while acknowledging the problem, have failed to address it with sufficient vigour. As in Britain, there is a political dimension to the dispute. The AFL-CIO has traditionally supported the Democratic Party, generating large sums at election times and getting out the voters on polling day. Although no one supposes that any union would go over to the Republicans in the future, a divided labour representation would be good news for President Bush and the Republican Party. The irony of the whole business is that this year the annual gathering of the AFL-CIO in Chicago was due to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the re-merging of the American Federation of Labour and the Congress of Industrial Organisation in 1955 after a previous split kept them apart for twenty-five years.


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