Changing Landscapes for Unions
Sue Ferns, Chair of Unions 21 and Deputy General Secretary of Prospect / 9 January 2020
I’ve been asked several times whether December’s General Election result feels worse than Labour’s loss in 1983.
My instinctive answer to this subjective question is that it does – not least because trade union membership is now at around half the level it was all those years ago.
It’s tempting to speculate why so many trade union members voted for right wing political parties in 2019. But, unless we understand and act on what the result of the election means for us, it is also dangerously diverting.
Instead, we must recognise that unions are in a very different position than the 1983 loss. We have all witnessed the changes in the structure of the UK economy in recent decades, and many thousands of workers have and continue to pay the personal price for the loss of high quality, skilled employment. But have we fully assessed the implications of the profound changes that are taking place now? Our Unions 21 publication ‘The Changing World of Work’ was a first start but we need to be sure that we understand our position in a new economic landscape.
We know from our recent research that young workers are keen to join unions, but do we even talk about machine learning, AI and automation in a way that interests younger generations of workers, many of whom see technology as a force for good?
There is more public attention than ever on organisational ethics, and rightly so – ranging from environmental impact to low pay and zero hours contracts. But that instinct for fairness no longer translates into an automatic decision to join a union. We have to be better at explaining what we do and telling our success stories at times and in ways in which people want to listen.
We should not be surprised that most members, who are not activists, are primarily interested in what’s going on in their workplace and in having the confidence that they will receive high quality individual support if they ever need it. This is the bedrock of successful trade unionism. Neither glamorous, nor high profile, it’s a craft that we sidestep at our peril. We should value it more. After all it’s where our next generation of union activists must be nurtured and developed.
The world of work has a hugely varied landscape. There’s no doubt that ‘sword of justice’ trade unionism will become even more important in the years ahead. But what’s our offer to help people get on at work or to re-skill as their industries continue to transition?
I’ve heard more than enough of employers who profess a commitment to diversity and inclusion but look to quietly drop any reference to equality – the ‘E’ in ED&I. Enthusiasm for outreach activities in schools and colleges, whilst important, is rarely matched by enthusiasm to tackle their gender pay gaps. We help them to get away with this by failing to treat equality as a core bargaining issue.
Now more than ever, we must work together. So, we need to survey the years ahead, and have clear strategies to survive and thrive. These must be built on listening to members, non-members and other stakeholders and prioritising our resources accordingly.
Unions 21 will be focussing on the changing landscape in the next few months, including the impact of the general election, the changing economy and member engagement. Join the discussion by signing up to our newsletter, following us on Twitter and coming to upcoming events.