MEMBERS of the EIS teaching union and UCU lecturers’ union in Scotland are set to go on strike tomorrow over issues of pay and pensions. In all probability, members of the RCN nurses’ union and PCS civil servants’ union will also take action before the year is out, with both now having secured lawful mandates for strikes.

What is notable about all these unions is that their predecessors – or previous constituent parts – began life as professional bodies. Indeed, most of them called themselves associations or societies and not unions. Some of them even gained royal charters.

Gradually, over time, they became bona fide unions, being independent of employers, government or state in terms of ideology, organisation and resources. Some of them still hold on to the professional standards part of their original mission but this became less of a priority for them.

More than 50 years ago, sociologist Robert Blackburn developed the somewhat clunky-sounding concept of “unionateness” to describe this process. It was one by which collective organisations of workers come to see collective bargaining and the protection of members’ collective interests as employees as their main function, rather than professional activities or welfare schemes.

READ MORE: Teaching unions react with fury to Scottish Government pay offer

In the process, these organisations become willing to be militant – that is, use all and any forms of industrial action which are effective in helping them gain their bargaining demands.

The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) was founded in 1847 “for the purpose of promoting sound learning and of advancing the interests of education in Scotland”. It was not until 50 years later that it noted it “increasingly became involved in matters of pay and conditions of service”.

Many years passed before the EIS undertook its first major and concerted campaign of strike action between 1984-86. This was seen as the final phase of the EIS becoming a bona fide union.

One of the UCU’s predecessor unions, the Association of University Teachers (AUT), was founded in 1917 following an initiative by one young lecturer to bring “together the members of the junior staff more into touch with one another and with the life of the university”.

Issues of pay and conditions were taken up quickly thereafter, and its use of industrial action became increasingly common from the 1980s onwards.

BUT it is the example of the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) which most starkly highlights the process and which has generated the greatest media interest. It was founded in 1916 but only registered as a union in 1977. It dropped its no-strike policy in 1995 and is now about to take its first-ever Britain-wide strike action. Only RCN members in Northern Ireland (in 2019) have previously taken strike action.

It is following a similar path to its sister union. In 2014, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) staged its first-ever strike action, over pay, after being set up in 1881 as an organisation to raise the status of midwives.

The RCN now looks to be following in the EIS’s footsteps, indicating such organisations have transmogrified from having a moderate and limited remit to become unions that are far more militant than anyone could have thought they ever would be.

Why is this? Essentially, it is because their members’ professional status and pay and conditions have deteriorated so much that these white-collar professionals have felt they had no other choice but to adopt the modus operandi of blue-collar manual workers in order to defend themselves.

READ MORE: Next set of strikes will have severe impact on network, warns ScotRail

Those of a Marxist persuasion would see this as a process of proletarianisation, whereby the airs and graces of an aristocracy of labourers are rudely shattered, bringing them down to the level of ‘“common or garden” labourers.

This process happens in fits and starts as it is a series of reactions to the actions of the government and state, but it moves on by leaps and bounds when inflation grossly outstrips pay rises, so eroding living standards.

It has taken the RCN more than 20 years from finally dropping its no-strike policy to actually organising a strike. Its members have realised the mere threat of a strike could only work so many times before the situation required that they actually do go on strike.

RCN members are about to join the ranks of angry brothers and sisters throughout Scotland and further afield.

Gregor Gall is Visiting Professor of Industrial Relations at the University of Leeds