Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

A voice at work is more important than ever before

We need to do more to reverse the decline in union membership, writes Joe Dromey

The referendum campaign showed just how attractive the siren call ‘vote Leave, take control’ was for millions of people who felt that the economy was not working for them.

The decline in the union movement has left too many workers without a voice or a sense of control at work. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, one in two workers was a member of a union. Today this has fallen to just one in four. The decline in collective bargaining coverage has been even sharper; from two in three workers in the late-1970s to one in three today. What is more, union membership and collective bargaining coverage are lowest where it is needed most; the low-paying private secret industries characterised by insecurity and poor job quality.

There is a risk that union membership and collective bargaining coverage will continue to decline. A large number of union members are set to retire in the coming years, and the movement has struggled to recruit younger workers to replace them. The Resolution Trust has predicted that union density is set to fall to just 16 per cent by the end of the next decade.

The decline in union membership and collective bargaining coverage has led to a growing imbalance of power in the modern economy. Unions help aggregate the power of working people, helping them to win a fairer share of the wealth that we collectively generate. As membership has declined, so inequality has soared, and average wages have stagnated.

Looking back, it is clear that the previous Labour government did not do enough to reverse the decline in union membership. There were some positive interventions – notably the Union Modernisation Fund – but the Labour government seemed to see reversing the decline in union membership as a matter for unions alone, and they were wary of being seen to be too close to the movement. That was a mistake.

While too little was done under Labour, the Conservative government seems to be seeking to finish what Thatcher started. The Trade Union Act, passed in 2016, further restricted trade union rights, which were already amongst the most illiberal among advanced economies.

There is significant cause for concern, but there are also some promising signs of union renewal and of unions successfully organising and winning for workers where they are needed most. Established unions like GMB and new insurgent unions like Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain are organising in the gig economy. Unite is doing fantastic work in recruiting and organising low paid hospitality workers, including at TGI Friday and Antic pubs. Unions are continuing to secure vital victories through the courts, whether it be Unison’s defeat of employment tribunal fees, or GMB’s work to tackle bogus self-employment at Uber and other platforms. And trade unions are leading the fight against a hard Tory Brexit; both making the case to government, and dragging Labour party policy in the right direction too.

The next Labour government should see reversing the decline of the union movement as an essential part of boosting pay, improving work and extending democracy to the workplace. Labour’s last manifesto set out plans to roll-out sectoral collective bargaining and guarantee union rights to access workplaces. It should go further, including looking at a digital right of access to workers, and trialling auto-enrolment into trade unions in the gig economy. Labour should also introduce a Workertech Innovation Fund to help unions harness the potential of digital technology to reach and organise workers.

In addition to strengthening union membership, a Labour government should look to promote partnership working too. Countries like Sweden show that high union membership and collective bargaining coverage need not lead to industrial strife, and that this can be a central part of an innovative and inclusive economy. So we should ensure unions are represented on national, sectoral and local labour market institutions, and employees are represented on boards too. Because both businesses and our wider economy run better when workers are given a say.


Joe Dromey is cabinet member for employment and skills in the London Borough of Lewisham


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Joe Dromey

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