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If Miliband is serious about tackling low pay, he needs to embrace the unions

The one thing proven to improve the conditions and pay of workers across the board is trade unionism. Labour should do more to champion it.

Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government's austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Much of the coverage of Ed Miliband’s recent welfare speech focused on his promise to cap social security spending. This was perhaps understandable considering welfare is the pet subject of the tabloids. The speech also attracted attention because it was widely believed to mark a turning point for Labour. The party had 'seen the light' and was now dancing to George Osborne’s tune on spending, or so it was claimed.

Also contained in the speech, however, was a great deal of content which should have warmed the cockles of any socialist heart. Miliband pledged to look at the underlying structural factors which have contributed to increased social security spending, including the abuse by employers of zero hour contracts and what the trade unions have called "low pay UK". He also said Labour would do "everything in its power" to promote a living wage.

Not bad for a party that is regularly dismissed by some on the left as being beyond redemption. Miliband has publicly recognised that it is structural, rather than individual failings, that are busting our benefits system - a world away from the cheap and nasty murmurings about the meaning of Mick Philpott emanating from George Osborne’s office just a few months back.

But something has so far been missing from Labour’s narrative on workplace justice, the one thing proven to improve the conditions and pay of workers across the board: trade unionism. 

Given the predilection in the right-wing press for depicting Ed as the unions’ man (in the Labour leadership election the only group he won was the unions), it's perhaps understandable that Labour should be seeking to portray Ed as beholden to nobody but the electorate. But if Miliband is serious about dealing with the causes of Britain’s bloated social security bill then at some point he is going to have to recognise that in order to be decently treated (and by that I also mean decently paid), workers often have to take their destiny into their own hands – and that requires a trade union.

At the very least, Labour needs to look at reversing the trend of declining union membership, which is at its lowest level since the 1940s. Although there was a slight jump in membership recently, just two million private sector employees are now members of a union, which gives them a much weaker hand when it comes to asking for a pay rise.

The benefits to the workforce of unionisation are numerous. Studies have shown that unionised workers receive a higher premium for the work they do than non-unionised workers in both the private and public sectors. They also receive better sickness and pension benefits, more holiday and more flexible working hours than non-union members.

For many, the workplace remains one of the few areas of life completely untouched by democratic accountability. A recent survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) found that only a third of British workers were engaged in any form of dialogue with their bosses at their place of work, another third were largely "disengaged", while the remaining third were indifferent.

The fear of being labelled "Red Ed" because of his link with the unions may also be based on a misreading of public opinion. According to Ipsos MORI, three quarters of adults believe trade unions are "essential" for protecting workers' interests, while only 15 per cent disagree. Only 35 per cent believe unions have too much power, against 53 per cent who don’t.

Instead of running scared of those in the press who have always viewed workers’ rights with something approaching contempt, Labour should be asking how it can make unions relevant to a new generation of workers who are often unaware of the benefits collective bargaining can bring.

After all, improving the pay and conditions of Britain’s workforce - and in the process cutting the benefits bill - will not come about by compromise alone. While it may provide comfort to imagine that all will be well if only employers are sufficiently paternal, improved pay and conditions will only become a reality for the many through unglamorous collective struggle.