Fermin

The pleasure to be had on a beach in Spain, becoming mayor of Barcelona and other stories

One can only know true misery in hot weather; everything else is at least partially absence of sun. Similarly one can only know true loneliness when surrounded by friends; everything else is at least partially absence of friends. It follows that if you wish to know the truest misery and loneliness possible you must gather you friends and family around you and go to some warm and beautiful place. You could call it a holiday. You might wish to intensify the experience by looking forward to it for a long time, or spending on it a sizable proportion of your wealth - because in a sense the more you suffer on holiday the better; your normal life then becomes - for a while at least - a blissful relief, and you are able to carry on and endure.

Soldiers who die in the line of duty are often described as having made the ultimate sacrifice. But is it? On the plus side it's quick, and glamorous. Is it not worse to lay down your life slowly, doing something you hate, that nobody respects, over and over again, in exchange for a wage so low that it's hardly enough even to cover the rent?

We set off on our holiday before dawn, as is traditional. We'd taken the precaution of getting the house burgled a couple of days before we went; saves worrying about it happening when you're away. The burglar broke in from the garden; my wife and I were upstairs at the time consummating our monkey lust. What timing; he must have been waiting out there for months.

We prized the girls out of bed, gave them a bottle of milk each as consolation and packed ourselves into a cab to the airport. We had just congratulated each other on how well it was going when both girls were sick. Then my wife was sick clearing up their sick. Mid-way through wiping the back seat after arrival I noticed our driver becoming irritated by my efforts. "No no no this cost money" How much? £50. O.K. Plus fare = £85 in total. The sun had not yet risen.

On the plane the air crew were selling lottery scratch cards; as if flying Ryan Air wasn't lottery enough. I repeated the Lord's prayer to myself and we landed safely in Valencia; I do not claim these two events are necessarily connected. Searching for the hire car I repeated to myself my driving-in-Europe mantra : "Drive on the right... drive on the right...". Finding the car I got in and surprised by the absence of steering wheel and pedals amended my mantra to :"Drive on the right... get in on the left..."

Set off following our Spanish friend Marie-Cruz with wife and girls in her car having omitted to form a backup plan; if I lost her I would be truly lost. It's good to have a plan, it's good to have a backup. More than twenty seven backups and you're over-doing it. Rolled a fag whilst driving with difficulty, smoked it with ease. At last arrived at our destination, the small town of Tavernes De Malingna (literally the Malignant Taverns); beautiful ramshackle outpost nestling at the foot of three mountains. My memories of previous visits to Spain came flooding back.

Ah Rioja! The most honestly named wine. For once I stood on Spanish steps, hatless in the noonday sun, raised a litre of blood-red Rioja to my lips and downed it in nineteen glorious gulps. And Rioja I did, all over the steps. And seeing what had come to pass the people of Barfelona wasted no time electing me Mayor. No time did they waste; they did not elect me mayor - and this I discovered when I awoke to find the chain around my neck that I'd been cherishing was still connected to the cistern.

"Your house is my house" I exclaimed in an effort to cut short the formalities as we entered our hosts' casa. Fermin, the hombre do casa, seemed slightly perplexed, nevertheless agreed to take me on a tour of the town. The first thing I noticed was the preponderance of faeces. "Dogs?" I enquired. "No, mi puchero, the mayor. It is part of his re-election campaign". The pavements were extremely narrow, in places no wider than a tightrope, difficult enough in normal shoes but nigh on impossible in the stilettos that all Spanish men are forced by law to wear. Yet somehow they managed; I couldn't help but admire them.

The town was full of taverns. Any stranger entering one is sure to be greeted with a warm welcome; a big-hearted chump will clasp you to his bosom, buy you a drink - whether you like it or not - and begin a prolonged bout of affectionate head pummelling. Meanwhile his accomplice; and he will have many, most of whom remain unknown to him, will be going through your pockets. It's an eco-system; strangers are nutrients.

The next day we went to the cassetta, a beach house, one among many illegal yet luxurious shacks that proliferate among the orange groves near the sea. We took the children to the beach - there were six by now - and the dog. This proved a mistake. I have always had an intuitive understanding with dogs; possibly because I was raised by wolves. Indoor wolves. Spaniels, frankly. On the way to the sand a wild dog followed ours; I shooed him away reasoning that ours being female the owners might prefer an arranged marriage. However on the beach the wild dog, with an accomplice, re-appeared. Now shooing became problematic. There'd been a storm the night before and I found myself standing by a shattered inflatable, sand-logged, embedded in the beach, both flare sockets empty. I spared a thought for it's occupants, then got on with my main business of preventing the wild dogs meeting ours. This proved impossible: The vast space and my diminished running abilities meant that simple cunning was able to triumph over advanced trigonometry. I only caught our dog - Nina - when it was too late. I attached the lead and stood there while nature took it's course; which is a long course with nervous dogs; they had become attached to each other physically and nothing could dislodge them, even sea water. Eventually I decided it was too late to worry about it, rolled one and enjoyed the view - apart from the dogs; I didn't look at them directly, that would just have turned them on more, presumably.

That night Fermin and I discussed the raising of children, the church - I pointed out that it had survived two thousand years whereas Jesus only lasted thirty three - psychology, and people he knew that made top quality honey for their friends. A mountain towered above us, a mountain he had determined one day to climb, but knew he never would.

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Trade unions must change or face permanent decline

Union membership will fall below one in five employees by 2030 unless current trends are reversed. 

The future should be full of potential for trade unions. Four in five people in Great Britain think that trade unions are “essential” to protect workers’ interests. Public concerns about low pay have soared to record levels over recent years. And, after almost disappearing from view, there is now a resurgent debate about the quality and dignity of work in today’s Britain.

Yet, as things stand, none of these currents are likely to reverse long-term decline. Membership has fallen by almost half since the late 1970s and at the same time the number of people in work has risen by a quarter. Unions are heavily skewed towards the public sector, older workers and middle-to-high earners. Overall, membership is now just under 25 per cent of all employees, however in the private sector it falls to 14 per cent nationally and 10 per cent in London. Less than 1 in 10 of the lowest paid are members. Across large swathes of our economy unions are near invisible.

The reasons are complex and deep-rooted — sweeping industrial change, anti-union legislation, shifts in social attitudes and the rise of precarious work to name a few — but the upshot is plain to see. Looking at the past 15 years, membership has fallen from 30 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015. As the TUC have said, we are now into a 2nd generation of “never members”, millions of young people are entering the jobs market without even a passing thought about joining a union. Above all, demographics are taking their toll: baby boomers are retiring; millennials aren’t signing up.

This is a structural problem for the union movement because if fewer young workers join then it’s a rock-solid bet that fewer of their peers will sign-up in later life — setting in train a further wave of decline in membership figures in the decades ahead. As older workers, who came of age in the 1970s when trade unions were at their most dominant, retire and are replaced with fewer newcomers, union membership will fall. The question is: by how much?

The chart below sets out our analysis of trends in membership over the 20 years for which detailed membership data is available (the thick lines) and a fifteen year projection period (the dotted lines). The filled-in dots show where membership is today and the white-filled dots show our projection for 2030. Those born in the 1950s were the last cohort to see similar membership rates to their predecessors.

 

Our projections (the white-filled dots) are based on the assumption that changes in membership in the coming years simply track the path that previous cohorts took at the same age. For example, the cohort born in the late 1980s saw a 50 per cent increase in union membership as they moved from their early to late twenties. We have assumed that the same percentage increase in membership will occur over the coming decade among those born in the late 1990s.

This may turn out to be a highly optimistic assumption. Further fragmentation in the nature of work or prolonged austerity, for example, could curtail the familiar big rise in membership rates as people pass through their twenties. Against this, it could be argued that a greater proportion of young people spending longer in education might simply be delaying the age at which union membership rises, resulting in sharper growth among those in their late twenties in the future. However, to date this simply hasn’t happened. Membership rates for those in their late twenties have fallen steadily: they stand at 19 per cent among today’s 26–30 year olds compared to 23 per cent a decade ago, and 29 per cent two decades ago.

All told our overall projection is that just under 20 per cent of employees will be in a union by 2030. Think of this as a rough indication of where the union movement will be in 15 years’ time if history repeats itself. To be clear, this doesn’t signify union membership suddenly going over a cliff; it just points to steady, continual decline. If accurate, it would mean that by 2030 the share of trade unionists would have fallen by a third since the turn of the century.

Let’s hope that this outlook brings home the urgency of acting to address this generational challenge. It should spark far-reaching debate about what the next chapter of pro-worker organisation should look like. Some of this thinking is starting to happen inside our own union movement. But it needs to come from outside of the union world too: there is likely to be a need for a more diverse set of institutions experimenting with new ways of supporting those in exposed parts of the workforce. There’s no shortage of examples from the US — a country whose union movement faces an even more acute challenge than ours — of how to innovate on behalf of workers.

It’s not written in the stars that these gloomy projections will come to pass. They are there to be acted on. But if the voices of union conservatism prevail — and the offer to millennials is more of the same — no-one should be at all surprised about where this ends up.

This post originally appeared on Gavin Kelly's blog