Trade unions must offer more than nostalgia – how can they move forward?

As the world of work changes and the gig economy grows, trade unions must adapt


There has always been a healthy streak of existentialism running through the UK’s trade union movement.  Never has that seemed more appropriate.  We know that we are still relevant to millions of members.  And we know too that conditions in today’s labour market are such that the need for protection, advocacy and empowerment has seldom been greater.  

But a steady procession of statistics showing the decline in union membership and collective bargaining coverage, along with data and analysis that indicate how technology, hollowing out and fragmentation are undermining the security and power of working people, are a grim warning that outside of the comfort zones in which membership is still common (but which aren’t necessarily that comfortable anymore anyway) we are struggling for our very existence.  

Of course we do take some solace from the real difference our unions make in thousands of workplaces everyday and our ability to secure important victories and impose a degree of justice  upon some of the UK’s worst employers.  At the end of the day, however, current conditions and the bigger picture must compel us to come back to a question posed over a decade ago by a couple of industrial relations academics as they contemplated the union role in the 21st century: is the continued existence of the institution of the trade union vital to the working of a fair and just society, or just plain old nostalgia?

For those of us (most) who are not in it for the nostalgia, the challenge isn’t necessarily to start with rescue plans that are simply about the sustainability of our organisations as currently configured, but instead start with ideas about how we address the systemic insecurity, income inequality and wage stagnation that are all too common in today’s labour market.  Here are three inter-related ideas just for starters:

First the trade union movement needs to take responsibility for and speak-up for the whole world of work.  If we do not, we will increasingly become niche players who only speak for and represent a diminishing share of the workforce, most of whom are in the public sector, the old utilities, manufacturing and public transport.

Scaling up to speak for all at work today would not be without its risks. But the danger of not doing so is greater. In the first phase this might not involve direct recruitment and organising activity.  Indeed, union business models, organising strategies and the very idea of what being a union members might need to evolve.

From now on, however, we have to develop and advocate for a shared vision of a fair and human labour market that is relevant to today’s fragmented world of work and which is as empowering and credible to someone in the gig economy as it is to an electrician in a power station.  

Second, trade unions need to do more to encourage debate within the movement about the challenges we face and the barriers to connecting with today’s workers.

This does of course already happen to an extent.  Unions do, of necessity, have a huge focus on challenges related to employment rights.  Where we are less strong is in relation to the cultural and economic challenges we face.  In some admirable parts of the movement there is now a new sense of urgency on these challenges.  But, overall organisational culture, structures and power struggles within and between unions work against openness to debate about the challenges we face and our performance in addressing them.   

This is pretty unique to our movement – and uniquely dangerous.  As the US trade unionist David Rolf, leader of the successful fight for $15 campaign in Seattle, puts it, ‘something can’t grow smaller and weaker every year and still portray itself as a vibrant, living, powerful thing. If you show me any organization that has the same product line, growth strategy (..) as they did in the last century, I’ll show you an organization in decline.’  

So how would we start such a debate?  The first steps have to include a proper analysis of how the world of work is changing.  We  have to listen more to working people in all parts of the economy about what empowerment means to them.  And we need to accept that the answers will not always be traditional collective bargaining and 1930s union structures.               

Third, the movement should invest in innovation.  One of the most interesting developments in the US that we can look at is the Workers Lab.  This provides grants to organisations that come up with viable ideas for projects that will raise wages and standards for working people.  One project that has recently launched is Worker Report, an app that can be downloaded onto smart phones and which enables people to report wage theft and health and safety violations.  

Successes have included the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which secured better wages and conditions for over 30,000 farm workers in Florida, and the Workers Defense Project, which has pressured Apple and others companies into requiring building contractors to improve wages and safety conditions on their projects in Austin, Texas.              

Could such a scheme work in the UK? We don’t know unless we try.  With declining and ageing membership and dwindling resources this might seem outlandish.

However, the TUC and all of our unions need to give this and other experiments serious thought.  In the final analysis it all comes down to what we think we are here for.  Are we a nostalgia act, or do we see ourselves as essential to the working of a fair and just society?

David Arnold is a policy officer at UNISON and longstanding Labour party member.  He writes here in a personal capacity.

See also: For Gen Y, trade unions should be a springboard not a safety net

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One Response to “Trade unions must offer more than nostalgia – how can they move forward?”

  1. Law Man

    An excellent article.

    I wonder if there are many people who view Trade Unions as I do. In principle there is a desperate need for them: at a national level to argue against malpractices such as Zero Hours Contracts, and at the local level where TU representatives within a business do good work helping employees to articulate their cases.

    So why the hesitation. Because the leaders of many TUs are more concerned with supporting extreme political views than helping their members; because the ‘democracy’ is almost non-existent with very low turn outs in internal elections; and because TUs act as though we are still in the early 20th century.

    At a time when TU leaders and Labour leaders are more concerned with esoteric regressive left policies, who will speak up for the millions of people they are supposed to help? A real risk is that the far right will gain appeal.

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