Search Unions21

News + blog

Rebooting the forward march of the UK’s trade unions

Writing over a decade ago a reflective Robert Taylor, the FT’s esteemed former industrial correspondent, concluded that the UK’s union movement was beyond repair. He explained how in the past unions gave a sense of the public interest that enabled them to shape and influence the world of work. However, the forward march had been brought to an end in the 1970s and the surviving structures and cultures remained too deeply entrenched to be either reformed or modernised in a way that would enable them to reprise their role.

Whether he is right or not depends to a certain degree on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. What’s not in doubt is that the intervening period has been pretty grim. There are still pockets of organisational strength, noble victories in the courts and powerful interventions in the national conversation about the world of work. But the big picture is one of decline. Its not just the overall fall in membership and collective bargaining coverage that throws this into sharp relief. Its also the way in which unions now find themselves on a
narrower and increasingly less populated strip of the labour market. 

Concentration of membership in the public sector has been well documented. But what skews things even further is the way in which the smaller membership in the private sector is either non-existent or underperfoming its own already poor average performance in the areas with most, and growing employment. On the other side of the coin, the sectors in which unions perform better reflect an organisational legacy from an era in which unions were powerful – but these sectors are shrinking in terms of overall employment share.

Nearly one in five work in retail and wholesale, but only one in ten is a union member. And whereas more than in one three in the old nationalised sectors such as transport and utilities is a member, less than one in 20 now work here. Longer term projections suggest these trends will continue - with unions increasingly in one, ever smaller part of the economy and a growing number of employees in areas where unions hardly exist. A recent report for Unions 21 suggests that future employment growth will be particularly strong in sectors such as retail, food and beverage services and professional, administrative and technical services. Today’s unions have only very limited presence in these sectors. The same is true of membership amongst the close to seven million who work in precarious employment.  Unions, rightly, have much to say about to say about the need to tackle exploitation and ensure all people are afforded decent workplace rights, they are yet to convince many of those experiencing more insecure employment that union membership can make things better for them.

So, how might an optimist respond? How can our trade unions reboot the forward march?

Clearly there is a need to reflect on what Taylor was on about when he referred to the destructive impact of entrenched cultures and structures and try and create instead the conditions in which innovation can take hold. This must contain three ingredients.

First, and most importantly, its should be an established principle that despite a challenging operating environment, today’s trade unions have to address systemic decline - and that it is in their interests to act together to do this. Tempting as it might be to double down on the handful of sectors where there is still reasonable level of membership and collective bargaining coverage, it should be acknowledged that without widespread recovery of the movement as a whole, trade unionism will be increasingly anachronistic which will ultimately seal the fate of any last vestiges of meaningful influence that the movement has.

Secondly, far more needs to be done to promote a wide ranging and open debate across the movement about what the problems are and how these can be fixed.  Part of the cultural problem that frustrated Taylor was the tendency for reflection to be seen as weak – and ideas about change to be seen as compromise or ideologically suspect. Added to this has been the reluctance to listen to and engage people from outside of the movement; to look and learn at how other organisations operate. In the current context, all unions and all shades of opinion within them should see the value in creating a space in which the doors can be thrown open, debate flourish and evidence assembled about what works for working people today.

Third, the union movement needs to pool some of its financial and organisational resources.  These should be used to invest in innovation and create new structures that address current weaknesses. In the US a Workers Lab has been established to experiment with and promote different models, platforms and organising strategies that can build power in the workplace and boost wages. Something similar could be developed here, not least to help develop and promote a meaningful and affective membership for part time agency workers and those working in the gig economy. Similarly, new structures could be created that channel organisational resources to those sectors of the economy, like retail, where there are millions of workers but very little in the way of union organisation and membership.

When the TUC congress assembles in Brighton this week it will at least have an opportunity to debate the future. A motion from the Communication Workers Union entitled 'A New Model of Trade Unionism' notes further decline in union membership revealed in recent government statistics and calls for the TUC and its affiliated unions to lead a major transformative project to create a new model of UK trade unionism. Optimists will be hoping that the motion is embraced – and that the movement is finally ready to move beyond the cultures and structures that have been holding it back.