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Unions need to get serious about innovation – and rethink collective bargaining

Capitalism isn’t working for the economy or for workers. A decade on from the financial crash, neither productivity or wages have recovered.

The rise of populist movements – from Europe to the White House – is symptomatic of an economic system based on rising inequality and squandered opportunities. Business as usual isn’t working and this should be a challenge for all of us, including supporters of decent work and trade unions.

It is no coincidence that growth in inequality has gone hand in hand with the decline in trade union membership. The relationship between the two figures is strong. New Zeeland and the UK, in line with much of the industrialised world, saw a dramatic drop in workers covered by collective agreements between 1980 and 2010.

Rising inequality is indicative of two significant problems facing the UK. Our economy isn’t productive enough and we don’t share prosperity widely enough. Both challenges stem from a lack of value placed on people as a key asset for growth.

Union membership

In the UK, nearly three-quarters of people think we should do more to improve the quality of jobs and less than one in ten think all jobs are fair and decent (RSA, 2017 Three million people experience insecure work and most people have barely seen a pay rise since 2008.

Yet rapid change, the global crash, hostile public policy and the decline of social democracy has had a profound impact on trade unions. In the UK, this year’s official statistics show that union membership is at its lowest density since modern records began in the 1980s.

Overall union membership has fallen from nine million in 1979 to just under seven million today. In the private sector, just 15.2% of workers are covered by a collective agreement. In the new emerging tech and digital sectors, union membership is even smaller.

The trend of declining union influence is not restricted to the UK. The number of workers covered by a collective agreement fell from 45% in 1985 to 33% in 2017, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The largest falls were in the Eastern bloc, following the demise of communism and in liberalising economies, such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

Young workers

One of the biggest challenges facing unions is how we reach out to the next generation. Our research among young workers shows little understanding about what unions do. Where knowledge does exist, there is often a perception that we are there for workers with problems.

The evidence suggests younger workers want us to explain ourselves better and to talk about what joining means for them. Many of them understand that they will switch employer several times across their working lives and they want support in navigating their career and the challenges that may bring.

Improving prospects is as important as delivering justice. This is even more true for the growing number of freelance workers.

Technological disruption, economic transformation and changing expectations are accelerating the processes that challenge our traditional notions of good work and trade unionism. We face an existential threat if we don’t reform.


So, what do we need to do?

Firstly, we need to get serious about innovation. A new industrial revolution is coming in technology. Jobs will change. Our understanding of work is already changing in many parts of the economy.

We need to have the difficult conversations about whether we are willing to change how we do things to fit a changing world.  

Innovation is already moving up the agenda for many unions. In Sweden, where union density remains healthy, a challenge to unemployment benefits in the early 2000s forced unions to reinvent their outreach. With a distinctly pro-marketing approach Unionen, Sweden’s largest private sector union has grown exponentially added 100,000 new members in recent years.  Usdaw, Britain’s retail union, has faced huge challenges from the risk of internet shopping and changes to the high street. Yet a change in organising strategy means that they recruited 93,000 new members last year.

  • In the UK, the rapid growth of platform companies has seen unions like the GMB challenge employment rights for contract and gig workers, including high profile court cases against the likes of Uber.
  • Community has launched a partnership with Indycube, a shared space provider.
  • The TUC is progressing with its WorkSmart project, aimed at reaching out to young workers with little knowledge of unions.
  • in the United States has become a powerful platform to bring workers together in unorganised companies as a first step towards greater voice.
  • In Prospect’s BECTU sector, we have just signed the first collective agreement for major motion pictures made in the UK. A deal negotiated, agreed and supported by a workforce that is 80% freelance.

There is much to be proud of but in reality unions are not investing enough in R&D or don’t see it as essential to our survival. The big question is whether unions can reflect the changing world or work adapt quick enough whilst still keeping to our values.

Organising for the future

The second challenge is whether unions can shape their structures to reflect the expectations of new members and local reps. The growth of contract workers, a younger workforce and smaller workplaces require different organising models.

The starting point in Prospect has been listening to members. We get data is a friend. Analysing it, asking members what they want, and speaking to non-members has given us valuable insights. With the growth in freelance work, our BECTU sector has branched out into public liability insurance for freelancers, training on how to run your own business and bad debt chasing for members who need it.   

We have changed the way our union communicates with members, are investing in digital skills and are adapting our traditional approaches to new settings. But we still have a long way to go. Our research shows that younger workers want much more support with career development and how to get on at work.

Everyday case for collective bargaining

Thirdly, we need to rethink collective bargaining.  If many young workers don’t get unions, they are even less likely to get collective bargaining and how it works.  

A changing economy means smaller workplaces, fewer large employer groups and greater expectations about flexible working. We need a greater focus on the gender pay gap, flexible working, diversity, productivity and freelance work as well as the traditional collective bargaining focus on pay.

The rise of the platform economy requires politicians, employers and unions to consider whether and how regulation, employment rights and employee engagement will work in the future. How is collective bargaining going to work in an increasingly networked and technology-driven economy? Negotiating new standards at sector level can provide a framework for industry but we should not lose sight of the importance of voice at a local level.  

Change is coming

The world of work is changing. Shaping its values, defining what decent work looks like and how its boundaries will work in an economy defined by technology, are still up for grabs. Trade unions were one of the original pioneers of social progress creating new ways to organise and providing a voice for working people. A new industrial age is emerging. Unions need to rekindle that pioneering spirit again.

This article was originally published in PSA's Progressive for Ten series, Future of Work