We need unions as much as ever. The challenge is finding new ways to organise

As TUC Congress draws to a close, all of us must find ways to reinvent the movement. 

It’s the final day of TUC Congress in Brighton – and a good time to assess the state of the union movement as it approaches its 150th year. 

The raw facts are there for all to see. We’re amid longest pay squeeze since the Victorian era. Nearly a million people are on zero hours contracts and three million in total are in insecure work, not knowing their pay or shifts from one month to the next.

And we’ve seen rights to take action stripped back, making it harder to challenge exploitative bosses. We have the strictest anti-union laws in Europe – and the Conservatives seem ever-set on making them harsher.

Yesterday I went on BBC Radio Scotland to debate the Institute of Economic Affairs on why unions are still needed today.

The IEA speaker called unions a ‘parasite that kills the host’ (charming, right?). Yet despite membership falling last year, unions are still making huge victories for millions of people.

Unison’s court victory in July scrapped employment tribunal fees for all workers. Pressure from unions on pay cap is paying off – the government looks set to end seven years of real-terms pay cuts (although there’s some way to go). And new sectors getting organised – from bullied McDonald’s staff to Deliveroo drivers and cinema workers demanding a real living wage.

The union movement still has over six million members, and has not stopped winning victories. And there are still big benefits to being in union – 10% higher pay, better training, safer workplaces and stronger voice.

But at the same time we know the dire fact that fewer than one in ten 16-24 year olds are in a trade union. The big task is getting to the the small, hard-to-organise workplaces – where staff turnover is extremely high. In that scenario, you can recruit half the staff and they might all leave within six months, meaning you start from scratch.

A Unite source I spoke to told me organising service sector workplaces is a ten year project. That’s a huge amount of resources put in to organise just one company or chain. 

There’s a recognition that unions need to modernise to handle this changing economy, as Frances O’Grady noted in her speech on Monday. From becoming more digital to raising up younger leadership, the old ‘pay £15 a month to one union’ model may need to end as people move around industries and have different needs.

Unions are trying to break into ‘greenfield’ sites – totally unorganised workplaces – but it’s a long hard slog, often with little membership pay-back. Unite’s sterling work tackling exploitation at Sports Direct has reportedly gained them very few members at the company – despite it leading to some significant reform and shining the spotlight on Mike Ashley.

But there are ideas out there. Here’s a few of mine to kick off:

  1. With people working for different companies in different sectors at once, joining one sectoral union may no longer make sense (I’m in two unions, as the only way of getting round working in two sectors). How about a new form of ‘umbrella’ union membership – you join the TUC and then go to whichever union deals with your current job?
  2. The National Union of Students could start to provide education on unions and train up reps before students have left their place of education. Seven million people are part of the NUS – the UK’s union of students can go further in promoting workplace unions.
  3. A Union Innovation Fund could allow unions to take risks, to explore new models of organising and updating their structures.
  4. The Labour Party itself could mobilise those 600,000 new members – many of them young – to ensure they not only fulfil their membership requirement of being in a union, but can take progressive politics and democratic organising into the workplace.
  5. A crowdfunded union education campaign: getting info on how to organise your workplace must be made much easier. Most young workers with a grievance won’t have the faintest clue what a union does, let alone what the next steps are in recruiting members and securing recognition (if that’s still the way to go).

The rights we have can’t be taken for granted – they’ve been fought for and can be taken away.

It’s easy to critique unions, but we all benefit from workers taking action together and securing victories. As TUC Congress draws to a close, it’s worth remembering that: and for all of us to find ways to reinvent the movement.

Josiah Mortimer is Editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter.

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