Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The changing face of trade unionism

Globalisation, automation, and flexible employment all pose risks to how trade unions function in the modern world. How should the movement respond, asks Kate Dearden

My first memory of the trade union movement was the stories my dad told me about being a shop steward at his Bradford print works. He was the traditional, dedicated, passionate trade union representative; fighting for fair pay, reasonable working hours, and for the safety of his colleagues at work. He was proud of the job he did, and I was proud of him.

However, when my dad was made redundant and his entire workplace closed down, he left his union. He did not leave because of some falling out, or because he no longer believed in trade union ideals, but because the traditional offer made by trade unions was not relevant in his new line of work.

Without the opportunities to upskill or retrain, he became his own boss, and left the dreaded night shifts he was used to. With the support of family and friends, he set up his own small business, and self-employment became a new and welcome way to earn a living.

The reason my dad left his union at that time, and one of the reasons trade union membership has collapsed in the last few decades, is something that can cause unease in a movement still stuck in many ways back in those abandoned Bradford print works: remaining relevant.

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In the face of this declining membership, the shrinking of traditional long-term employment opportunities, the growing world of the self-employed and freelancers, as well as the unstoppable forces of automation, unions need to find a way to stay relevant to the modern workplaces, which are changing at an ever accelerating pace.

The size of the self-employed sector is soon to overtake the public sector, and employ over five million people across the United Kingdom. Of course, trade union representation of the self-employed is not a new concept; in sectors such as journalism and broadcasting, unions for the self-employed have a long and proud tradition. However, as the self-employed sector grows at a record pace, there are growing concerns for trade unions. That the sector has no awareness of what trade unions can offer them, no connections with other workers in similar circumstances, and crucially, no way of fighting back when people try to take advantage of their labour.

We at Community, and anyone who wants to see a Britain with workers of all kinds given the protection and security they deserve, should look to new ways to engage with the workers in this new economy. Our project for this is IndyCube Community where we are taking those steps to expand the self-employed network, and helping them organise into a group with a strong, united voice on issues that matter to them.

IndyCube Community offers all the traditional elements of Community’s traditional trade union support, but with additional specialist support and services that cater to the needs of freelancers and self-employed. This includes advice on everything from invoicing and tax returns, to insurance, health and safety, and legal representation.

Projects like IndyCube Community have made trade unionism relevant to my dad again and I know it can do the same for millions like him across Britain. Indycube Community is there to help make self-employment work, not just as a business, but as a lifestyle that currently carries far too much risk for those without the expertise or money to protect themselves.

During this Heart Unions week, we cannot only reminisce on why we loved our trade unions in the past, but how we will work to make them relevant long into the future. Globalisation, automation, and flexible employment are all here to stay. Only by striving to change with the times, by fighting to stay relevant, can unions play their crucial role in this changing world of work.

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We need to view this new economy as an opportunity, not a threat. An opportunity to recruit the next generation of trade unionists, encourage new ideas, welcome the jobs of the future, and build partnerships with those we once would have ignored, but who need us now more than ever. If we do this we can celebrate Heart Unions not just this week, but for many more years to come.


Kate Dearden is the campaigns and research officer at Community. She tweets at @kate_dearden

This Heart Union week, please go out of your way to check if your family and friends are trade union members. There is nothing like the support of a Union when you need it most. And if they happen to be self-employed, let them know about



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Kate Dearden

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