Trade unionism still constitutes the largest form of voluntary organisation in Britain. Eight million people are members of trade unions which equates around a third of all employees. Trade unions dominate workplace employment relations in the public sector and continue to influence most important aspects of working life in the private sector.
This isn’t to say that trade unions can be in any way complacent. Over half of all employees have never been a member of a trade union and 80 per cent of private sector workplaces have no union. The changing nature of the UK economy, combined with changes in the workforce has made it harder for the trade union movement to organise than at any time in the last century.
The union movement has, this week in Manchester shown that the government mantra ‘there is no alternative’ is wrong. A clear alternative has been set out covering public services, pensions, manufacturing and employment, based not on a strategy of cuts but a strategy of growth. Developing this strategy is important but the challenge that now faces the TUC and trade unions is to get the message across to the wider public, and to build a strong progressive alliance with working people to change the policy direction of the coalition government.
Clearly, one measure of the success and effectiveness of trade unions is to simply look at the pure statistical measure of membership figures. As important, if not more so, is the extent to which those members are active within their union and within their communities. For many, trade union membership is a passive experience and for many of those tempted, greater involvement can appear difficult and overly formal. Progressive unions like the NASUWT are developing new ways to engage members, particularly those who traditionally have been under-represented, and to broaden the appeal of trade union activism.
Going forward, a strong network of local trade union activists, engaging and mobilising members but also building alliances in local communities will be crucial. The challenges ahead will make it more important than ever that every trade union has a clear organising strategy and the resources to back it up.
Trade unions will continue to play a key role in the future. How effective unions remain depends on constant critical self-evaluation and renewal to ensure they remain ‘fit for purpose’.
A useful start for those interested in shaping the future of the trade union movement in this way is the Unions 21 publication Resilient Unions http://www.unions21.org.uk/download/132
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