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At 150 years, focus on the here and now

These are deeply troubling times for the world of work and working people, which the agenda for the 150th TUC Congress captures comprehensively. The crumbling cliff edge of decent employment, endemic low pay, job insecurity and huge power imbalances between ordinary working people and their employers – as well as wider forces such as protectionism, climate change and automation. These are the factors that shape the day to day experience and longer term prospects of millions of workers.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the vast majority of the motions look to policy fixes from a more benign government to address the difficulties working people and the trade union movement itself face. It is after all the government’s callous labour market and economic policies as well as their continued war on trade unions that go a long way to explaining why we are where we are. Motions include demands for a meaningful industrial policy, a £10 living wage, statutory minimum contracts and pro union policies, including the introduction of sector level collective bargaining.

But whilst all these changes would clearly be welcome, it’s important to highlight the limitations of putting so many eggs in the policy basket. For a start we have to be honest enough to admit we do not know how long we will have to wait for a government that will introduce the changes that we want to see. We also have to fess up about the lack of analysis out there at the moment regarding the extent to which the pro union measures that are called for, such as sector bargaining, can actually deliver increased union membership and meaningful collective bargaining coverage we crave. Most importantly of all, such an approach diverts us from a much needed focus on the challenges facing us as organisations today and what we ourselves can do in the here and now to deliver for more of today’s workers who aren’t currently members.

The shape and scale of the challenges the movement face have been well documented over recent months. They include falling collective bargaining coverage and a declining, ageing membership. Most significant of all is the growing mismatch between sectors in which unions retain organisational presence, such as public services, transport, and utilities, and those parts of the labour market in which increasing numbers of people now work, such as administrative and support activities, retail and hospitality.

It would of course be unreasonable to expect trade unions to use the annual TUC Congress to launch some kind of collective existential crisis. It is, after all, one of the few opportunities to highlight the issues workers face in different parts of the labour market and to mobilise the wider movement behind specific industrial, economic and citizenship campaigns.

However, there clearly is need for a better balance. A few of the motions point the way ahead. The calls from Prospect for the TUC to undertake more work to engage younger workers and promote collective voice and collective bargaining goes some way towards acknowledging the need to do things differently in order to boost our relevance to the vast majority of workers for whom unions play no part in their day to day lives at work. But the CWU motion ‘A new deal for workers’, goes furthest. This recognises the need for a new Bridlington to foster greater co-operation between unions so as to tray and reach millions of unorganised workers.

There are a host of ideas that have been mooted over recent months about creating new union institutions that could facilitate greater co-operation that the motions calls. These include the proposition that we need a new TUC centre for trade union growth, a workers lab to encourage innovation in parts of the labour market that have always been hard for unions to crack and a new membership for the low paid – all underpinned by an investment for growth strategy.

Its not just important that this motion is passed at Congress. Its also vital that as many unions as possible speak, engage and embrace the notion that working together and innovating we can achieve more for today’s hard pressed workers.