White collar unionism

Picket line at British Museum, 1979


By Professor Robert Carter, De Montford University


The term white-collar worker comes laden with different meanings and assumptions. For much of the period after World War 2 until the late C20th, and for most commentators, the term referred to non-manual workers who enjoyed superior terms and conditions of employment, working in cleaner environments for fewer hours with greater security and the benefits of salaries paid monthly rather than weekly. The occupations that fell into the category were also increasingly feminised although this aspect received little attention in the period at hand. White-collar jobs were growing in numbers both absolutely and relatively to manual workers in all advanced societies (Table 1). Most importantly of all they were less likely to be unionized, deemed to be more socially conservative, and by status were members of the middle classes. The growth of white-collar employment was welcomed by conservative social theorists who regarded them as a sign of the ability of capitalist societies to provide progress and as a bulwark against the possibility of socialism. This view was widely, but not universally, reflected across the political spectrum, with some Marxist theorists insisting that while white-collar workers were employees they were not workers because of the types of tasks they performed and/or because of their better rewards and lack of working-class consciousness. Even where such employees were unionized, the general view was that white-collar unions were different and were, in Blackburn's (1967) term, less 'unionate'. All of these ideas could be seen reflected in manual worker attitudes towards white-collar employees through the use of terms such as 'office wallahs', 'pen pushers' and bureaucrats. Nor were attitudes to white-collar unions any more generous with them frequently dismissed as 'bosses' unions.


In a landmark book, The Growth of White-Collar Unionism (1970), Bain takes a pragmatic view of the definition of white-collar employee, stating that it is useful to include within the term 'foremen, overlookers, and supervisors; scientists, technologists, and technicians; clerical and administrative workers; security personnel; professions; salesmen, commercial travellers, and shop assistants; government administrators and executive officials; and specially "creative" occupations such as artists, musicians, and entertainers' (1970:4). He noted that this inclusion reflects general industrial practice and these groups see themselves as 'belonging more to management than with manual workers, and are generally regarded by manual workers as one of 'them' rather than one of 'us' (4).

There have been attempts to define the nature of white-collar workers more rigorously but these have necessarily been connected to theories of class. Renner, for instance, claimed in 1953 that post-World War 2 had seen the consolidation of a new class - the service class - that arose from the growing sub-division of the functions of capitalists: 'These aids are neither capitalists nor workers, they are not the owners of capital, they do not create value by their work, but they do control the values created by others' (cited in Carter 1985: 31). In 1954, Croner (cited in Carter: 1985: 32-3) argued similarly that a new social class - 'white collar' - had been formed based on carrying out functions that were previously performed by employers (administrative; design, analysis and planning; supervisory and managerial; and commercial). Against these characterisations of the class positions of white-collar workers stood a range of Marxists who maintained that to be a wage earner was to be a proletarian regardless of the tasks and functions at work. Any difference between the objective position of being waged labour and the reflection of that position in class ideology and collective organization was frequently explained by the notion of 'false consciousness'.

A weakness of these theoretical positions was that they tended to unify disparate groups whose experiences were very different. Lockwood's The Blackcoated Worker (1958) focused on clerks, albeit in a number of different industries. The intention of the book was to overcome two weaknesses. The Marxist position argued clerical workers being propertyless were therefore working class, while at the same time it was unable to convincingly explain why clerks were more socially conservative and less likely to be unionized. On the other hand, those theories derived from the German sociologist Weber, focused almost exclusively on market and status distinctions and had little to say about experiences at work. Lockwood adopted a framework that examined not only the dimensions of market and status situations but also work situations - the set of social relations in which individuals are involved due to the social division of labour. This approach allowed him to conclude that clerks had never been strictly proletarian in terms of income, job security and occupational mobility. Moreover, when it came to the work relations of clerks, even where they worked in large, bureaucratically controlled offices, their position was not identical to manual workers. Lockwood maintained that office workers retained a relative proximity to administrative authority that explained the hostility and resentment between clerk and manual worker. Finally, while Lockwood acknowledged that the relative advantages of office work had declined he believed that it was possible that the insecurity that this generated in clerks, and by extension other employees, was as likely to exacerbate status rivalry rather than end it, as they tried to cling to their feelings of superiority. What became increasingly clear was that the economic and social developments that caused the relative decline in white-collar work, terms and conditions were far from temporary and that the response of collectively organizing in trade unions to defend themselves became increasingly attractive. As Bain and Price (1983) showed between 1948 and 1964 the growth of white-collar unionism failed to keep pace with the overall growth in white-collar employment: between 1964 and 1970 the percentage grew at a much faster pace than employment.


Many white-collar unions have their origins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By 1951, approximately one in four white-collar workers were members of trade unions with the largest five clerical unions having a combined membership of 450,000. One third of these were members of the Civil Service Clerical Association (CSCA), slightly less in the National and Local Government Association (Nalgo) and one fifth in the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA). All of these unions represented members in the public sector, and had union density figures of 80%. Where high proportions of women were employed, they were as likely to belong to the relevant unions as men, a refutation of the contention common at the time that women were less likely to join. White-collar employees were much less well represented in the private sector, with the National Union of Bank Employees (NUBE) having in membership 35% of bank clerks and the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union only 5% of industrial and commercial clerks.

As Table 1 indicated the growth of non-manual employment was unrelenting in the period after WW2. A combination of factors cohered to encourage their unionization in increasing numbers. The 1960s saw rising levels of inflation, government attempts to impose wage restraints, increasing bureaucratization in the form of standardized terms and conditions, and increasingly militant manual worker trade unionism that centred on workplace organization. If white-collar workers were not to see an even more rapid decline in their relative rewards they had little option but to unionise. From 1964 to 1970 total white collar union membership increased by 34%, bringing the proportion organized from 29% to 38%. By 1974 36% of all trade unionists in the TUC were white-collar workers compared with 26% a decade earlier.

By 1964 there were 280 white-collar unions and 20 partially white-collar unions (Bain 1967). In addition there were numerous staff associations that functioned as trade unions and in many cases effectively acted as transitional organizations later merging with a recognized TUC union. The rapid growth of white-collar unions attracted increasing attention. Some of the attention continued in the earlier vein by continuing to regard white-collar unions as different, being more conservative and reflecting their concern with status, one such measure of which was their reluctance to affiliate to the TUC and the Labour Party. Increasing affiliation to the TUC was seen as one sign of the increasingly firm trade union commitment of white-collar workers. Nalgo affiliated in 1964 after a series of internal debates that centred on whether it was a professional association or a trade union. The NUT was engaged in its first major national strikes in the late 1960s (see Seifert 1987 for a history of teacher unionism) and affiliated to the TUC in 1972. Moreover, although public sector unions dominated numerically, unionization gained momentum in the manufacturing. Table 2 illustrates the particularly rapid expansion of ASTMS.

Some academic commentators, admittedly partisan ones, such as Allen (1969) saw the unionisation of white-collar workers as part of a process of proletarianisation as their position became more and more similar to that of manual workers. In doing so Allen avoided the question as to whether the unions that white-collar workers joined exhibited significant social differences to those of manual worker unions - a question taken up by Blackburn (1967). Blackburn examined union character and its influence on the number of people prepared to join the organization. Any study of unionization should therefore should according to him look at both the size of union membership in a particular field, expressed as a percentage of potential members (normally referred to as density) and the level of unionateness - the measure of 'commitment of an organization to the general principles and ideology of trade unionism' (1967: 18). These principles included the centrality of collective bargaining, the union's independence and its preparedness to undertake all forms of industrial action. It also included more formal criteria such as affiliation to the TUC and the Labour Party. However, such affiliations or otherwise can mask differences as much as confirm similarities. The AUT affiliated to the TUC as much as a defence against ASTMS encroachments on its membership as opposed to a full-blooded commitment to wider identification and solidarity. Affiliation to the Labour Party can be as much a drag on the likelihood of developing industrial action and solidarity as an encouragement for it.

From very different positions, Allen and Blackburn regarded the influence of changing class relations on the propensity of white-collar workers to unionise: the dominant work in the field, Bain's (1972) The Growth of White-Collar Unions set out to refute the connection. He maintained instead that aggregate growth of white-collar unionism was influenced by three strategic variables - employment concentration, union recognition and government action. An increased need for white-collar unionism was discerned because as 'employment becomes more concentrated and bureaucratized, individual white-collar workers find that they have less and less ability to influence the making and administration of rules by which they are governed on the job' (1972: 188). But while the need for unions might be greater, the realization of greater unionization was in Bain's opinion unlikely because their strength was insufficient to persuade employers to concede recognition. He concluded therefore that 'the future of white collar unionism in Britain is largely dependent upon government action to encourage recognition' (1972: 188).

As a verdict on the fate of white-collar unionism Bain's position did not stand the test of time. It is not sufficient to restrict claims to the aggregate level. The example of the expansion of ASTMS showed that employee willingness to join, and an attractive union actively seeking expansion, was enough to make real gains in the same milieu that witnessed much lower growth for other unions. It is also possible to see the strategic variables that he advances as far from contradicting the importance of the class influences that bear upon some white-collar workers. Employment concentration frequently brings standardization of conditions and the greater subordination of labour - a feature of class relations that Braverman (1974) was to highlight and extend to white-collar labour in his influential examination of the degradation of labour in the twentieth century. The application of Taylorism to the office with its separation of conception from execution, the detailed division of labour, and work measurement had, according to Braverman, unambiguously clarified the problem of the white-collar worker by polarizing of employment and the creation of a large proletariat. As with the fragmentation of work and the destruction of skill in clerical and office work, so it is win other branches of industry where white-collar workers are numerous. Service work, in the form of retail workers, saw the rise and dominance of supermarkets:
'the demand for the all-round grocery clerk, fruiterer and vegetable dealer, dairyman, butcher, and so forth has long ago been replaced by a labor configuration in the supermarkets which calls for truck unloaders, shelf stockers, checkout clerks, meat wrappers, and meat cutters; of these only the last retain any semblance of skill, and none require any general knowledge of retail trade' (1974:371).
This US experience was replicated in Britain.


Braverman did not examine developments within trade unions and the effects of the changing labour processes that he identified. Certainly the developments were evident in Britain throughout the period and were factors in unionization. White-collar workers joined unions in increasing numbers in a period of generalised industrial militancy in response to both changes at work and worsening economic conditions. Unemployment rose steadily from 1.6% in 1964 to 6.1% in 1977 and the Retail Price Index that had increased just 15.5 points between 1956 and 1962 rose by 90 points from 1962 to 1974 and a further 82 points in the three years from 1974 to 1977. Under both Conservative and Labour governments' incomes policies were implemented restricting the level of wage increases permitted. The move towards productivity deals under Labour as a way of facilitating change and allowing additional wage increases also encouraged the spread of limited workplace bargaining in nationalized industries and the public sector more generally, further encouraging the development of the shop steward system. Nalgo, for instance, especially in large metropolitan centres saw the rise of shop steward networks and the growth of an influential activist organization, Nalgo Action. The overall response of organised labour was to maintain a high level of strikes that lasted longer because of increased employer resistance (Table 3).


The growing strength of white-collar unionism was effectively halted by the advent of a Conservative government committed to an economic and political offensive against trade unions. A series of legislative measures were enacted that narrowed the definition of permissible industrial action and restricted the means for by which disputes could be advanced. Public sector cuts, privatizations and a range of measures such as compulsory competitive tendering, bore down upon public sector workers and their organizations leading to fragmented, defensive disputes and a loss of confidence and influence. A series of large-scale defeats, most notably the miners' strike of 1984/5, confirmed the shift in power. By 1993 there were only 211 strikes reported, with an average of over 1800 workers involved in each dispute for 1.7 days.

Recognition of this power shift caused the TUC to lead a movement towards New Realism a de facto recognition of the superior power of the state and an expression of accommodation to it. Henceforth, many unions were to concentrate not on confrontation but on making themselves more attractive to their members and potential members by offering enhanced services. In fact, one white-collar union, ASTMS (as illustrated below) had already pioneered such an approach. Another response was to merge with another union (or effectively be taken over through a transfer of engagement) with the resulting reduction in the number of unions (Table 4). Mergers have been explained by both external factors - the economic environment in which unions operated and the decentralization of bargaining (Waddington 1995) - and internal factors - loss of membership and associated financial difficulties or seeing the need to respond o the mergers of others and their relative loss of standing and influence (Undy et al. 1996), although both factors were obviously related.

White-collar unionism, as a form, appears to be the victim of this merger process. The formation of white-collar unions was in places merely a reflection of occupation segregation: just as engineers formed engineering unions, bank employees formed bank unions. But there was also an element whereby the option of joining an existing union was eschewed in favour of the formation of organizations reflecting different values and concerns. Outside the public sector, where some white collar unions are as much industrial unions as white-collar ones (teacher and Civil Service unions are cases in point), the option of joining a white-collar union was fast disappearing as TASS increasingly merged with manual unions before merging with ASTMS to form MSF in 1988. In local government and the health service Nalgo joined with the NUPE, the manual workers union to form Unison in 1993. Even in the civil service where white-collar unionism was maintained the number of unions were reduced with the number of unions falling from twelve to six (Undy 1999: 447)


MSF was formed in 1988 by the merger of ASTMS and TASS. ASTMS was a particularly heterogeneous organization comprising professional groups from the health service, insurance workers, engineering foremen and technicians, and managers and staff from a miscellany of companies, many themselves acquired from mergers. TASS had also widened its membership categories through mergers with craft manual worker unions within the engineering industry (National Union of Sheetmetal Workers, Coppersmiths Heating and Domestic Engineers; National Union of Gold, Silver and Allied Trades) as well as the Tobacco Workers Union.

Between 1963 and 1978 ASTMS was involved in 28 successful mergers in 15 years up to 1978. Formed in 1969 by the merger of the Association of Supervisory Staff, Executives and Technicians (ASSET) and the Association of Scientific Workers, for much of its existence it had a reputation for militancy and for being on the left of the trade union movement. For a considerable time it managed despite this reputation to appeal to large numbers of white-collar workers that had little tradition of organization. Between 1948 and 1974 it grew by over 1,000% to stand at over 400,000 members. For a brief period in the 1960s ASSET, echoing a theme in the leftwing French sociology of Mallet and Gorz, believed its growth stemmed from proletarianisation of middle class labour that in turn would become the vanguard of the trade union movement. This view was superseded by one of organizing white-collar workers as a middle class - that is, as a group with special and particular sentiments and interests. Specifically, middle class employees were more reluctant to take industrial action, felt superior in many respects to the working class, and were resentful of what they perceived the higher pay and improved conditions won by manual worker trade unionism.

The Association recognized the reluctance of potential members to take industrial action by projecting an image of trade unionism that required a minimum of commitment. Its view of trade unionism showed little emphasis on self-activity and collective organization, typifying what later became known as a 'servicing model' (see Carter 2000 for a discussion of this model and its opposite the 'organising model'). This orientation was made clear in a book by its General Secretary and Director of Research:

If you feel unwell you visit a doctor; if you have toothache you visit a dentist; if you are involved in litigation you visit a solicitor; if collective bargaining needs to be done, workers approach a trade union. We live in the age of the professional and in the case of trade unions this applies not only to the negotiations, but also to their research, legal and educational staffs (cited in Carter 1885:194)
By stressing its professional nature, paralleled the status of potential members by ASTMS portraying itself as different and superior to manual unions.

Middle-class feelings of superiority were supplemented with resentment towards manual workers who appeared to be able to gain concessions from employers unavailable to themselves. ASTMS attempted to mobilize this resentment with some success, walking a narrow path between supporting fellow trade unionists' demands and hostility towards them for undermining the advantages of its own members. The claimed possession of additional skills and responsibilities underpinned the support for differential payments for white-collar staff. The Association claimed that higher payments in turn 'help lift the whole concept of adequate pay at all levels, and is therefore an aid to all trade unionism' (cited Carter 1985: 197). Although employers might resist particular claims for differentials there is little evidence that they objected to the principle and white-collar pay agreements frequently mirrored those that manual workers had won through taking industrial action.

As the economic and political climate for unions worsened after 1979 recruitment, both direct and through mergers, halted. Rather than competing with each other as they had done in engineering factories throughout Britain, ASTMS and TASS merged to form MSF in 1988. The merger was not a happy one and the new organization, riven by factionalism, based on old loyalties, continued to lose members. The emerging dominance of the ASTMS wing allowed the leadership to stress those features that had resulted in ASTMS growth. This orientation strengthened the move towards treating members as passive recipients of professional services. Its General Secretary claimed that MSF members 'have not acted out of traditional solidarity' (cited in Carter 1997: 13) and emphasized the union's expertise in individual rights and representation and the provision of pension products and financial services.

This restatement of aspects of ASTMS-type practice did nothing to reverse decline and rising financial deficits caused a crisis that encouraged a radical re-think. In 1995, MSF became an early convert to the organizing model but in a manner that seriously weakened the possibility of its success. Introduced in a top-down manner with insufficient debate the need for membership gains led to a hectoring of its full-time officers and growing demoralisation. MSF ended its existence when it merged with the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union in 2002: the demise of MSF confirmed the end of attempts to organize white-collar workers as a specific and separate group with different values and concerns.

To access statistical tables on White-collar Workers in Britain 1945-95, click on the Related Media button below


Allen, V (1966) Militant Trade Unionism: a re-analysis of industrial action in an inflationary situation, London: Merlin

Bain, G. (1970) The Growth of White-Collar Unionism, London: Oxford University Press

Bain and Price (1983). 'Union growth in Britain. Retrospect and prospect'. In G. Bain, (ed.), British Journal of Industrial Relations, 21(1): 46-68

Blackburn, R. (1967) Union Character and Social Class: A study of white-collar unionism

Braverman, H. (1974) Labor and Monopoly Capital, New York: Monthly Review Press

Carter, R. (1985) Capitalism, Class Conflict and the New Middle Class, London, Routledge, Kegan Paul

Carter, B. (1997) 'Adversity and Opportunity: towards union renewal in MSF?', Capital and Class, 61: 8-18

Carter, B. 2000) 'Adoption of the Organising Model in British Trade Unions: Some Evidence from Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF), Work, Employment and Society 14(1): 117-136

Lockwood, D. (1958) The Blackcoated Worker, London: Unwin

McIlroy, J. (1995) Trade Unions in Britain Today, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Seifert, R. (1987) Teacher Militancy: A History of Teacher Strikes 1896-1987, London: Falmer

Undy, R (1999) 'Negotiating Amalgamations: Territorial and Political Consolidation and Administrative Reform in Public-Sector Service Unions', British Journal of Industrial Relations, 37(3): 445-463

Waddington, J. (1995), The Politics of Bargaining, London: Mansell

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