Adapt to survive

Trade union decline is not inevitable, argues Usdaw general secretary John Hannett

The latest figures on trade union membership in the United Kingdom showed that it fell to 6.2 million, down 4.6 per cent on last year. Times are certainly tough for unions. We are operating in a fragmented labour market, with growing levels of insecure work, from zero hours contracts to bogus self-employment, making it more difficult to reach out to workers. The public sector, where union membership has traditionally been high, stands depleted after seven years of austerity, and we have a government whose anti-trade union agenda was clear from day one.

It is easy to become despondent, but we must not accept that continued trade union decline is inevitable, or that unions are no longer relevant. According to the latest Ipsos Mori poll, almost eight in 10 people in Britain agree that trade unions are essential to protect workers’ interests. However, we know that less than a quarter of workers are union members, so there is a gap between the abstract idea of unions as a ‘good thing’ and people taking the step to join one.  The only way to bridge that gap is by organising. Often, the barrier to people joining a union is simply that they have never been asked.

My union, Usdaw, represents workers exclusively in the private sector, in the sort of jobs where unstable working patterns, a high proportion of young workers, and relatively high staff turnover would typically point to declining union membership levels. However, our membership has actually grown by almost 100,000 over the last decade, as a result of our strategic approach to organising.

Our aim has been to create a sustainable organising model, with structures in which workplace representatives build relationships with their members and deal with issues at local level, with the support of their area organiser. Our reps do an incredible job for us, so it is a major priority for us to support them and help them to develop skills and confidence.

We measure and review every aspect of our performance, and growing the union is something that everyone is responsible for. This is not the pursuit of growth for its own sake, but to strengthen workers’ collective voice and get the best possible results for them, both in terms of collective bargaining and campaigning.

Usdaw’s campaigns are an essential part of our strategy to improve members’ working lives, and those campaigns help to raise our profile in workplaces too. To give just one example, our ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign gives retail workers a voice in their own store, at national level with their employer and in the public eye, to say that abuse at work is not acceptable and that workers need to be protected.

It is essential that we get the message out to young workers that unions are for them. While the government’s ‘national living wage’ excludes workers under 25, Usdaw has negotiated for the removal of youth rates in all of our major food retail agreements. We are working with employers to ensure that good quality apprenticeships are available and that apprentices are fairly paid. Young workers, who are disproportionately likely to be in low paid, insecure work, need unions and unions need them.

Unions are working hard to stay representative and to extend our influence, but there are many more challenges ahead, especially with the prospect of Brexit and its potential impact on every sector. It is vital that we continue to adapt our organising strategies to ensure that more workers have a say on their terms and conditions and are protected at work in the uncertain times ahead.  The trade union movement may be facing difficulties, but it is needed more than ever.

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John Hannett is general secretary of Usdaw. He tweets at @JohnHannett

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