Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Is there a bright union future?

The Taylor review is a start but not the blueprint many had hoped for, writes Sue Ferns

Ten years on from the financial crash there is no doubt that British workers are still feeling the heat. While we might not have experienced mass unemployment as in previous recessions, a decade of austerity, falling wages and rising living costs has reinforced inequality and insecurity. But there is also no hiding from the magnitude of the challenge that unions face.

The latest trade union membership figures show a fall of 275,000 from 2015-16, the largest annual decrease recorded since the series began in 1995. Over half of workers in the public sector but just 13.4 per cent in the private sector belong to a trade union. Employees in professional occupations are more likely to be trade union members than other employees, and a higher proportion of women than men have joined. None of this has happened by accident. Since the early 1980s the main thrust of Conservative party policy has been to effect labour market deregulation and undermine collective bargaining. This policy direction needs to be reversed as a matter of priority.

There is a clear consensus that depressed wage levels are correlated with the decline of collective bargaining and trade union influence. While governments of differing persuasions have variously intervened to provide wage floors or through the tax system, fundamentally wages are determined, particularly in the private sector, solely by employers. In addition, nearly a decade of public sector pay constraint has meant the entire United Kingdom economy has lived through a sustained real terms reduction in income. According to analysis by the New Economics Foundation restoring union density to the levels of the early 1980s would add around £27bn to UK gross domestic product.

So, what should we be doing?

First, we need to focus on workers’ rights, not least with Brexit looming. Unions need to champion and fight to both keep hard-fought rights guaranteed by Europe on the statute book and to create new rights around a changing economy. Matthew Taylor’s review into the gig economy and the most vulnerable workers was a start. His report does not provide the blueprint that some may have hoped for. It misses potential quick wins from promoting awareness and enforcement of existing rights and suffers from timidity in its policy prescriptions. Significantly it took a union – Unison – to restore access to justice through the abolition of employment tribunal fees.

One of the most useful aspects of the Taylor report is its labour market analysis, including the reminder that full-time employees still account for 63 per cent of all employment, with some growth in part-time and self-employment over the last 20 years, to 26.2 and 15 per cent respectively, compared with four per cent in the gig economy.

Second, we need to focus on the quality of work and the importance of progression; something the Taylor review did pick up on. These are key elements of a modern trade union agenda. Desirable though it may be, it is deluded to think that good work will be delivered on an equitable and consistent basis without an effective collective voice. Fifty years ago, when the Donovan Commission reported, this was widely recognised and accepted. Government action is needed to rebuild this consensus.

Third, we must remember our historic strength as agents in managing change fairly, and reapply it with vigour in the face of Brexit and a changing economy. Today’s – and probably tomorrow’s – diverse and disparate working patterns and practices can make it more difficult for unions to access potential members. There is a positive role that the state could, and should, play in this regard, not to do our job for us, but to remove the barriers that can prevent us from doing so.

There are good reasons to be optimistic. For example Bectu, now a sector of Prospect, is well known for its long-established backing of freelancers in the creative sectors. Success stems from specialist understanding of the challenges these workers face – some traditional, others not – and leveraging collective strength to deliver practical solutions for individuals.

This is modern trade unionism at its best. We have always thrived when we have been the innovators. We need to keep true to that spirit.


Sue Ferns is deputy general secretary of Prospect union and chair of Unions21. She tweets at @FernsSue


Source: Progress

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