To survive the fourth industrial revolution, small towns need trade unions

Andrew Bettridge

In 1979, trade union membership was at its peak of over 13 million. Almost 40 years on, it is around half that, with government data showing membership levels are now around 6.2 million. It’s no coincidence that as trade union numbers have declined, so have our small towns – a theme of this year’s Labour conference and the party political broadcast which followed afterwards.

Many of our small towns have a proud industrial heritage – my hometown of Burton is famously known for its strong connection to brewing. Learning about the industrial revolution in secondary school, I recall our history teacher asking us how many of our parents worked in the town’s breweries. Only a few hands went up. Compare that to 30/40 years ago, almost every single hand in the room would have gone up, he told us.

That is also the same for other towns, which built themselves around a particular industry – take Fleetwood, close to where I live now, which would have employed thousands of people in the fishing industry at its height. The same can be said for the six towns of Stoke on Trent and its ceramic history. But also places like Mansfield and many of the other smaller towns close by, which would have had many working in the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire mines.

If I go back to Burton today, you’ll find breweries such as Coors (formally Bass) and Marstons still going strong. But increasingly more and more low-paid and low-skilled jobs, often on temporary contracts, are being created in distribution and call centres on the outskirts of the town. Burton and other places like it were central to the last industrial revolution. If they are to be in “Industry 4.0”, it won’t be done on the back of those temporary, low-skilled and low-paid jobs.

This is why trade unions are more important and relevant than ever. As trade unionists, we should all be demanding higher skilled, better paid and securer jobs from the employers and other organisations that serve our small towns. But to do that, first we have to halt the decline in union membership.

In 1995, almost 33% of all workers in the West Midlands were members of a trade union– in places such as Burton, Dudley, Walsall, etc. The latest figures from the ONS now say it is at 22.6%. In the industrial North East, which includes the steel and chemical jobs on Teesside, union membership has had a sizeable drop across the region. In 1995, 43.1% of all employees were part of a union – that figure is now at 28.5%.

To stop that decline, we must challenge the negative perception a lot of people have of trade unions. We need to explain why and how joining a trade union can make a difference to their everyday lives. It isn’t simply just about striking on the picket line when there’s an industrial dispute (as important as that is). Statistics again from the ONS show that on the whole, unionised workers earn more an hour than those not in unions.

Overall, employees on average earn an hourly rate of £14.18. When you take those who are unionised, that increases to £15.63, and when you look at those who are not unionised, that drops to £13.75. It of course varies from sector to sector, but in what is defined as the Skilled Trades Occupations there is a difference of 31.8% in favour of those who are in a union.

The same can be said for the health and social industry, which will be in increasing demand as we deal with the challenges of an ageing population. This will be more of an issue for smaller towns, as people could choose to swap busy city lives for quieter towns to potentially retire in their later years. Unionised workers in this sector on average earn £15.98, compared to those who are not and on average earn £11.87 – a difference of 34.6%. There are also big differences in the education professions, but also retail and customer service jobs.  

Equally important is giving those in work, but also those not, the pathways to train and learn new skills (which in the long term can lead to higher paid employment and better opportunities). Established under the last Labour government, Union Learn has helped millions of people gain skills and qualifications to boost their job and employability prospects. Every £1 invested in the Union Learn Fund in Round 18 is estimated to generate an economic return of £7.20 to the individual and £5 to the employee.

Investing in a higher skilled and well-paid workforce will be key to halting the economic decline of our small towns in the years ahead – towns like Mansfield, Fleetwood and my hometown of Burton. But that will not be done by most big employers on their own. It will only be achieved by more and more people joining a union, with their union reps demanding better for the members they represent. Small towns only thrive when the workforce thrives. And they are more likely to thrive when they have a trade union collectively fighting their corner.

Andrew Bettridge works for a Labour MP and is a member of the CWU.

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