Radical thinking is needed to boost trade union membership

Just 14 per cent of private sector workers are in unions, making work more insecure for everyone


Unless you’re a labour market geek, you almost certainly missed the government’s statistics on trade union membership released at the end of last month. Don’t worry, I don’t blame you.

But the state of the trade union movement is absolutely central to the future of the labour market and work in our future economy. So we should sit up and take notice of what’s going on.

The problem is, for many years there’s been little to sit up and take notice of. Unions have, since Thatcher’s trade union reforms, been in a process of steady, dull decline – never too sudden to force it to a moment of crisis.

union levels since 1995

In Gramscian terms, the old is very slowly dying, but the new is yet to be born.

The same-old approaches to labour organisation don’t seem to be creating the revival that the union movement needs in an increasingly fragmented world of employment – with nearly five million self-employed, millions more working part-time, and millions others doing multiple jobs with varying degrees of ‘formality’ – from zero-hours to temping.

The latest Labour Force Survey, released by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, shows that:

‘Around 6.5 million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2015. The level of overall union members was broadly unchanged from 2014. Current membership levels are well below the peak of over 13 million in 1979.’

A small numerical increase of 36,000 doesn’t account for the rise in employment that has taken place in the last few years, meaning union density – the percentage of workers who are in unions – has continued its decline, falling slightly to 24.7 per cent in 2015.

That means a proportionally weaker union movement within workplaces, where it counts. (And they’re ageing too – p21).

Just 14 per cent of private sector workers are now in unions. That means only one in seven have any kind of collective voice protecting their rights at work. With a shrinking public sector in a time of austerity, that really matters.

In the public sector, density remains basically static, with 55 per cent of workers unionised. So we’re left with a relatively protected rump of the five million public sector workers in the UK, while the 25 million private sector workers are increasingly isolated and marginalised in terms of workplace representation.

Let’s be clear: without serious union action to organise in non-traditional private sector workplaces – e.g. outside of energy, transport and infrastructure  – work is only going to get more insecure for all of us.

Regulations set the baseline for employment practice. Unions set an even better baseline and enforce the former. When many of us are protected by unions, we all reap a ‘union premium’ through raised standard in the market.

After falling during the recession years, union membership levels among employees have stabilised since 2011. But with stabilisation there’s come a lethargy or stasis.

Aside from the positive but variable Young Workers’ Month, there’s little sign of plans to organise the millions of freelancers in Britain, or those who’ve never heard of a union, the self-employed, or those who work in small offices. Partly because of course, it’s so bloody hard.

We need radical thinking, and, predictably, no one has the panacea. But unions need to take risks and experiment in order to be at the forefront of 21st century coalitions to engage the disengaged – to get a precariat which doesn’t have the ideological attachments to unions mobilised.

As Unison executive member Jon Rogers said in a blog post on Wednesday:

‘our trade unions have not suffered a decisive defeat as we did in the 1980s. […]

On the other hand – perhaps because of the approach of (in effect) ‘battening down the hatches’ […] we have not broken out of our marginalisation and relative decline.

The time is right for a new start, for new imagination and for new enthusiasm’

Exploitation has changed in the 21st century, but it’s still very much with us. It’s no longer about losing limbs in looms, but about stress, long-hours, unpaid overtime and the expectation that you have to work outside of actual working hours – and a hundred other issues.

There’s some small signs for hope in recent years: BECTU’s successful Ritzy cinema workers’ strike in Brixton; Unite’s successful campaign against ‘tip theft’ at chain restaurants; and the BMA’s junior doctors’ strike which inspired thousands of young docs to join the union and – crucially – win.

Stagnation isn’t good enough. We need a turnaround. Unions that don’t recognise that will be left behind – and so will a generation of workers.

Josiah Mortimer is a regular contributor to Left Foot Forward. You can follow him on Twitter@josiahmortimer.

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