While the world around trade unions has rapidly changed, there is an impression trade unions have remained stuck in the past with antagonistic rhetoric, outdated governance structures and an inflexible approach. Yet trade unions remain as vital as ever in an insecure jobs market, and do have the capacity to protect workers and inspire support when they use positivity in place of hostility.
The future of the UK trade union movement has long been a matter for concern. Trade union membership has been stagnating for the last 30 years and structural changes in the UK economy have led to trade union density in the private sector dropping below 14 per cent.
The most worrying aspect of this decline is that – despite work being increasingly less secure, growing wage inequality, and workers’ rights being slowly rolled back since 2010 – trade unions, or more precisely trade union membership, appears not to be a relevant choice for millions of workers.
Polling suggests that too many people who would be interested in being a member of an organisation that offered independent advice and protection at work are put off by the tone of voice and confrontational language they hear from union leaders, usually only during an industrial dispute or power struggle within the Labour party. If unions used to be angry, now they’re furious, and it is not helping.
Trade unions face serious challenges, but if we adapt, we can survive. The rise of self-employment, freelancing and the “gig economy” means more and more people are in need of the services and support that unions offer. But our benefits and services must be responsive to the needs of workers today and be flexible enough for change when it comes.
We do not talk openly enough about our successes. We shouldn’t be embarrassed when we make something happen whilst working in partnership with decent employers. Nor should we shy away from championing successes achieved through industrial strength, but we need to be more sensitive to how we frame this to a wider audience.
But tweaks to our messaging and services are not enough on their own. We also need structural change in our trade union movement to ensure our long-term success.
Firstly, we need to recognise the severity of the situation that we are in and face up to the facts of declining membership, relevance and authority. There needs to be an acceptance that it is the responsibility of the trade union movement to understand the problems we face and to address them – not to blame others such as the press, politicians or employers.
Secondly, we need to build a consensus across the trade union movement on a recovery strategy. Given the diverse interests of our many sister organisations, that is easier to say than to deliver on. Strengthening the governance of trade unions should be one priority, seeking to develop a tripartite social framework with employers and government should be another.
Thirdly, we need to ensure the continuing and increasing relevance of trade unions to the world of work. We must recognise that we are struggling to connect beyond our membership and in many cases even beyond our activist base.
Too often change is done to trade unions, rather than by them. The Trade Union Act is the most recent example of a Conservative government taking action to reduce trade union influence. It won’t be long before they return to this pursuit. So rather than waiting to respond, why don’t we take the initiative?
It shouldn’t be beyond the collective wit of trade unions to seek to develop and modernise our own structures, develop ideas that would underpin our future independence and seek out best practice across the movement in the delivery of services and benefits.
These are undoubtedly big challenges for the trade union movement. I know we want to help build a fairer, more equitable society with decent jobs, housing and education. Wanting to do these things isn’t enough, we need to be in a position to make change happen.
John Park is assistant general secretary of the trade union Community. This blog is based on a chapter he wrote for the book Changing Work: Progressive ideas for the modern world of work, published this week. Changing Work is the first publication from the Changing Work Centre, an initiative from the Fabian Society and Community which is chaired by Yvette Cooper MP.