The unions’ problem runs deeper – for unions and for Labour

I read Luke Akehurst’s concern yesterday about the strength of the Labour-union link, and about the decline in the proportion of party members who are also union members, or prepared to join.

Like Luke I am a union member, and like Luke I want to see our union link strengthened, not severed. But poor membership crossover is not just a problem for Labour: it is a symptom of an underlying problem for British unions that has been unaddressed for too long.

The decline in Labour members being union members mirrors the decline in the workforce as a whole. Since peaking in the 1970s the proportion of union members in the workforce has declined every year. Now, less than 27% of workers are unionised: in the private sector, the proportion is less than 15%.

The trade unionist of our romantic imaginings is rather different to reality as well. Trade unions don’t represent so many horny-handed sons of toil any more: union members are more likely to have a degree than non-members, earn more per hour and are more likely to be in stable, full-time, permanent employment.

Union density is highest amongst professionals, who make up 45% of members, and lowest amongst shop workers. Those on middle incomes in the public sector have by far the highest rates of unionization – but for the lowest paid, workers on less than £250 per week, the rate is around 13%. Unionisation is now rare outside of permanently employed professionals in large workplaces, and especially so outside the public sector.

Most worrying of all is the age profile of union members. Around a quarter of workers are over 50, but more than a third of trade unionists are; in contrast, workers under 25 make up 15% of the workforce but only 5% of union members. This is a time bomb for union membership as retirees are replaced by a cohort where union membership is almost an alien concept.

In this context the decline in union membership amongst Labour members isn’t quite so shocking: it is simply part of a wider picture of declining union membership in Britain. Luke’s solutions, of a CLP audit and pushes for membership and participation for union and Labour members alike, are eminently sensible in themselves; they don’t, however, go to the heart of the problem.

Arresting the decline in union membership broadly ought to have been top of the list for every General Secretary and candidate for union office in the last 15 years, is rarely spoken of in these terms. I have heard anti-union laws attacked on many occasions: but setting aside the merits of reversing each 1980s reform, I cannot believe that there are legions of workers who are put off union membership because secondary picketing is illegal.

The uncomfortable truth is that work has moved on but unions have not. Union structures were built for representing a large, largely homogenous group of workers in a single large workplace to their employers. But this pattern is rarer for British workers than at any time since the industrial revolution: SMEs make up a large and growing portion of the private economy but are a desert for unions, with only 17% unionization. Workers are in smaller firms, have a blurred line between the shop floor and management, and expect to move jobs or sectors several times in their careers (either through necessity or for career advancement).

With all of this unions need to focus as much on individual as on collective services for members. It should be no surprise that teaching bucks the general rule, with over 60% unionisation: teachers rightly fear career-ending accusations about the level of force required when dealing with fights or other disciplinary issues, and know that union representation is their only personal insurance policy.

Unfortunately this appears to be a blind spot for other unions, at least in my experience. Just over a year ago I was made redundant by a small firm after it went into administration and was prepared for sale as a going concern. I contacted my union for advice several times – on each occasion I was promised a call back, which did not come. I hope my experience isn’t representative of workers but I fear it is.

Protecting workers, especially the most vulnerable, is as important as it ever was – if not more in the current climate – but needs to be approached differently. Union protection needs to follow the worker and be responsive to them, just like every other service people buy: this should of course include traditional legal and workplace representation, but could also encompass lifelong learning and skills, career and training advice, and help with achieving a strong and healthy work-life balance.

For many non-members, joining a union isn’t something they haven’t quite got round to: membership is outside their experience, and would be an unusual, even an eccentric, choice to make. Unions point out that they are poorly treated by the media, and there is truth to this – but unions could do more to engage public opinion. Businesses spend time, effort and money to communicate clearly and persuasively; unions appear to focus on speaking to members and sympathisers first and the rest of the public second. The fight against deeply regressive policies, like the watering down of employment rights or dark mutterings about maternity pay, requires a union movement confident of public approval for success.

Trade unions were the great social movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, and are still virtually an official religion for our party – and I am still a willing communicant (although I grumble about the occasional sermon). But there needs to be a recognition across the movement, political and industrial: that we need the public on our side, that their support cannot be taken for granted and that unions’ offer to workers in today’s economy is in need of serious renewal.

It would be a shame if after being so central to our past the unions could not live up to being the mainstay of our future.

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