Unions 21: We need a debate about how to reform workers’ groups

Writing a decade ago a reflective Robert Taylor, the Financial Times‘ former industrial correspondent, concluded that Britain’s union movement was beyond repair. He explained how in the past unions had given a sense of the public interest that enabled them to shape and influence the world of work. However, their 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 was right or not depends on whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. What’s not in doubt is that the intervening period has been sobering. There are still pockets of organisational strength, victories in the courts and powerful interventions in the national conversation about the world of work. But the big picture is one of immense challenges. Its not just the overall fall in membership and collective bargaining coverage that is the problem. Its also that unions now find themselves on a narrower and increasingly less populated strip of the labour market. Concentration in the public sector has been well documented.  What skews things further is the way in which unions in the private sector are either non-existent or under-perfoming their own already low density in the areas with most, and growing employment.

Nearly one in five workers are employed 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, fewer than one in 20 now work here. Longer term projections by Unions 21 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. The same trend is evident amongst the close to seven million in precarious employment. Unions, rightly, have much to say about the recent growth of insecure work and the need to guarantee dignity and decent workplace rights for all but they are yet to develop the organisation and union offer that would convince these employees that membership can make things better for them.

How can our trade unions revive the forward march? Clearly there is a need to reflect on what Robert Taylor was on about when he talked about the destructive impact of entrenched cultures and structures and try to create instead the conditions in which innovation can take hold. This should contain three important ingredients.

First, and most importantly, its should be an established principle that despite a challenging operating environment, today’s trade unions are the only ones who can address the systemic decline.  They have to take responsibility for the problem and act together to address it. 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 then – without widespread recovery of the movement as a whole – trade unionism will be increasingly anachronistic. This would seal the fate of any last vestiges of meaningful influence the movement has.

Secondly, far more needs to be done to promote an open debate about what the problems are and how they can be fixed. Part of the cultural problem has been that reflecting on the decline in the movement has been seen as negative and weak – with ideas about change interpreted as a compromise or ideologically suspect. Added to this has been the reluctance to listen to and engage people from outside, and learn from other organisations. In the current context, all unions and all shades of opinion within them should see the value in creating a bigger space in which debate can flourish and evidence assembled about what might work for working people today.

Third, the union movement needs to pool some of its financial and organisational resources in order to invest in innovative ideas that address today’s organising challenges. In the US a Workers Lab has been established to experiment and promote different models and organising strategies that can build workplace power and boost pay. Something similar should be developed in Britain, not least to help develop and promote a meaningful and effective membership for agency workers and those in the gig economy. Similarly, new structures could be created that channel organisational resources towards sectors like retail, where there are millions of workers but relatively little union organisation.

When the TUC Congress assembles in Brighton today it will have an all too rare opportunity to debate reform. A motion from the Communication Workers Union notes further decline in union membership and calls for a major transformative project to create a new model of trade unionism. Both optimists and pessimists should be hoping that the motion is embraced – and that the movement is ready to move beyond the cultures and structures that have been holding it back.

David Arnold is a senior fellow for innovation and change at Unions 21.

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