Progress | Centre-left Labour politics
Trade unions – junior doctor's strike

It’s the unions, stupid

Unions will be key to ensuring security for a generation that has already been let down by the economy, writes Ben Campbell

It is easy to become distracted by rose-tinted memories of the 20th century as a relatively golden age of economic equality and social mobility. They do, however, hold a basic truth. This came in the form of a generational bargain which dictated that each generation would be wealthier than the one that preceded it. That whatever the political whims of the day, parents could rest easy in the knowledge that their children will be better off than them. Evidence suggests that this may no longer be the case. 

Ostensibly the current economic outlook is positive. Unemployment is at an all-time low and gross domestic product (GDP) grows every year as we seemingly grow richer and richer. This fails to paint an accurate picture. Wages have grown 19 per cent since 2008 but the prices we pay for goods and services has risen by 25 per cent in the same period. Such anaemic growth means it could be years before real wages return to pre-recession levels.

High house prices have also played a part in the demise generational prosperity’s upward curve. In the 20-year period to 2015/16 net family income for 25- to 34-year-olds grew by 22 per cent whilst house prices increased by a staggering 152 per cent. It surely can be no coincidence that such a downturn for working people has corresponded with a decline in the membership and political power of trade unions.  

Read more: The future of Labour campaigning

Although membership levels have increased slightly this year, unions experienced an unprecedented downturn in 2017, haemorrhaging 275,000 members – the biggest drop on record. Current membership stands at 6.23 million; to put this into context around 13 million workers belonged to trade unions in the late 1970s. So straightaway their influence over national policy is weakened in a simple numbers game. Combine this with the limitations set by legislation such as the Trade Union Act of 2016 which heightened the voting threshold for strike action. The impact has been predictable – with the number of striking workers last year falling to its lowest since 1893, despite the worst period of wage growth since 1815.  

This trend of fortune appears to be spreading around the western hemisphere. In the United States, the supreme court decreed that it was unconstitutional to charge non-union members for the benefits of collective bargaining. Despite low memberships, trade unions in France wielded great power through their ability to whip up public backing for their cause. Such sentiment seems to have dissipated quickly this time round. For example, polls showed a small majority believed that a strike by railway workers in spring of this year was unjustified. The lack of a united front has allowed President Macron to hammer through the kind of sweeping employment reforms that were always out of his predecessor’s reach. Debating the merits of these reforms is for another day. It is clear, however, that unions are at their weakest when we need them most.  

In the UK, not only is wage growth stubbornly slow but the very nature of work is radically changing. Part of the decline in union members can be put down to a shift from manufacturing jobs to the burgeoning services sector which is chronically under-unionised. These new jobs are often insecure. Trade Union Congress figures published earlier this summer showed that one in nine UK workers or 11.9 per cent of the workforce are in precarious forms of employment. Research published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has studied the impact of the much publicised gig economy. The report concluded that if individuals relied on this form of work for their primary source of income; ‘They are potentially vulnerable to fluctuations in working time and therefore pay levels, short notice of work schedules, and suffer from a degree of precariousness in terms of a lack of employment rights’.  

trade unions women's strike dagenham

There’s a technological aspect to this too. The Bank of England’s chief economist Andy Haldane warns that advancements in artificial intelligence and automation means thousands of UK workers could face unemployment. A report by the Mckinsey Global Institute estimates that as many as 800 million jobs could be lost around the world by 2030. Apocalyptic visions of the future may turn out to be unwarranted. For instance, the expanding services sector might ‘soften the blow’ of these losses, but there can be no denying though that the working landscape is shifting extensively. Working voices must be heard as we enter a time where lifetime jobs are heading for extinction and insecure, short term work becomes the new normal.  

These issues demonstrate a key challenge going forward not just for the trade union movement but the centre-left as a whole: to address the concerns of the working-class voters who once formed the core of its vote. Feelings of uncertainty and resentment in a globalised world have made western elections increasingly volatile. Concerns therefore, have often manifested in sharp lurches to the right.

Dissatisfaction with modern economies has seen centre-left parties faltering in the polls and in need of a new direction. Urgently, we must make sure that the experiences of working people are represented in national policymaking during a time of unprecedented change.

On the foremost political issue in the eyes of a voter, the Clinton campaign of 1992 made it clear that: ‘It’s the economy stupid’. Nearly 30 years later, this is still the case – and people are not happy with what they see.

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Ben Campbell is a writer.

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