What kind of trade unions do we need for the decade ahead?

25th November, 2012 1:04 pm

By Sue Ferns

A few weeks ago I chaired a seminar on ‘Union learning and the green economy’ at which Steve Craig of UCATT explained how the union is using training to improve environmental awareness to drive workforce development, enhance procurement and tendering processes, and deliver a better deal for apprentices and NEETs. Steve neatly illustrated how union engagement in learning at work can be part of a strategy that is core to progressing unions’ industrial and negotiating agendas, describing his challenge as proving that the union adds value to performance, upskilling and training.

My own view is that if all unions could respond successfully to this challenge, we would reverse the declining trend of trade union membership.  We would do so not by dancing to the employers’ tune but by moving them on to a better tune. To do so, we need a compelling response to the Government’s failed economy policy and divisive employment agenda. We also need a contemporary vision that outflanks the preferences of an increasing number of employers for workforce fragmentation and individualised employment relations. So our agenda must be about fairness at work, investing for good performance and contributing to economic efficiency. And to produce real change it has deliver against all three objectives, not cherry pick.

We know that the role that unions play as a ‘sword of justice’ in the workplace still resonates widely and, if Prospect’s members are representative of other unions, young members too understand the value of collective voice in achieving fair treatment. But there are no grounds for complacency. Four out of five workplaces across the private sector are not unionised and Government articulation of an approach that amounts to little more than ensuring equality of misery has proved depressingly effective.

So unions need to do more to ensure that our offer speaks to the concerns and interests of all workers, demonstrating that collective bargaining underpins fair treatment in competitive markets and making it easier for people to join and get involved gradually. We also need to emphasise that unions are for people who want to get on at work and that participating in union activities can support career aspirations, for example through the development of transferable skills.

More broadly, as politicians rediscover the need for industrial policy, we need to reclaim our place at the table.  In the 1980s, when I started my trade union career, union representatives contributed in a wide-range of tripartite forums to economic and industrial decision-making. These roles were established as part of an institutional infrastructure that recognised and valued the experience and expertise of unions, and representatives were supported and trained to undertake these roles both by the TUC and their own unions.

There were good reasons why these arrangements continued through the Thatcher years despite the many policy disagreements.  The plain fact is that, in contrast to Government Ministers and shareholders, workers and their representatives are motivated by the long-term health and success of their organisations. Hindsight shows that the UK has paid a heavy price for ignoring this reality whereas other European nations have continued to benefit from a more democratic approach to decision-making.

Times of crisis of necessity impact on trade union priorities, and it is right of course that we stand up for and defend the living standards and job security of our members. But we need both tactics and strategy to build a better future and, whilst understandable, there are dangers in focusing too closely on the tactical response to the day-to-day challenges that confront us. I would argue that developments since the spring have, in fact, demonstrated the cogency of the TUC’s ‘battle for ideas’ in shifting strategy. Banking reform, tighter corporate governance and the potential for green growth have all been accepted and promoted as mainstream proposals.

To translate these ideas into reality we need to build the trade union movement’s resources, prioritising membership growth in the private sector, and we need to harness all our talents in order to maximise credibility and leverage. That means looking at our own organisations and structures too. Frances O’Grady’s election as the first female General Secretary of the TUC is an important step forward, but it must be followed by a wider programme of change.

Sue Ferns is Head of Research and Specialist Services at Prospect and Chair of Unions 21

This piece was commissioned as part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList
  • Dave Postles



  • News More free votes ahead? Labour MPs put pressure on Greenwood over Heathrow

    More free votes ahead? Labour MPs put pressure on Greenwood over Heathrow

    David Cameron is reportedly within days of making a decision on airport expansion, with many expecting him to support a a third runway at Heathrow. This could cause a headache for the Tories, with Boris Johnson, Zac Goldsmith and several Cabinet ministers all opposed to expanding Heathrow’s capacity. However, it could spell trouble for Labour too: Harriet Harman backed the Heathrow expansion recommended by the Davies Report in July, but the party are now committed to examining the evidence again. […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured A free vote was always the best Corbyn could have hoped for

    A free vote was always the best Corbyn could have hoped for

    There’s a great Smiths track called ‘I Started Something I Couldn’t Finish’. Actually, I think all Smiths and Morrissey tracks are great, but that’s a column for another website. That phrase sums up the approach taken by Jeremy Corbyn to the Syria vote. Starting an unnecessary fight and then having to climb down. I don’t know if it is Jeremy himself strategising, or persons unidentified in his team, but they are progressively squandering the immense political capital that his big […]

    Read more →
  • Europe Featured News Alan Johnson to promise distinct Labour EU campaign

    Alan Johnson to promise distinct Labour EU campaign

    Alan Johnson will today launch the Labour Party’s official campaign to stay in the European Union, promising a distinct campaign that focuses on jobs, workers’ rights and national security. “The first duty of any government is to keep our country safe and I firmly believe that leaving the EU would fail that test,” the former Home Secretary will say at the launch in Birmingham. “From the European Arrest Warrant to cross-border data sharing on terrorists, the speed of our response […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Featured Labour MPs give Corbyn a “lively” reception after Syria position decided

    Labour MPs give Corbyn a “lively” reception after Syria position decided

    Meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party are now never unremarkable. This evening’s saw one of the biggest gatherings of lobby journalists outside Committee Room 14 at 6pm on a Monday in a very long time. Just two and a half hours after the Shadow Cabinet met to decide Labour’s position on Syria, leader Jeremy Corbyn and Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn stood to address Labour MPs and peers about the outcome. It was, apparently, a bizarre scene. The two appeared […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Europe Featured Leaving the EU would put Britain’s economic security under risk

    Leaving the EU would put Britain’s economic security under risk

    Terrorists bring death and destruction to the streets of Paris… Europe faces its biggest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War as thousands of refugees flee conflict in Africa and the Middle East… world leaders gather in Paris at the UN climate change conference to find solutions to the looming global climate crisis… These are some of the biggest global challenges facing us today, challenges that require urgent action, challenges that can only be solved at international level, in cooperation […]

    Read more →
Share with your friends