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1 June 2018updated 05 Oct 2023 8:16am

Don’t blame trade unions for their declining membership

The standard response to the unions’ decline is to either dismiss them as irrelevant – they aren’t – or to call on them to adapt. Yet they already are. 

By Joe Dromey

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the TUC. For a century and a half, trade unions have fought to improve pay and conditions at work. They have been a force for fairness and for economic justice.

Unions are as important as ever. While the employment rate has reached a record high, there are growing concerns about the quality of work. We have seen the longest stall in wage growth in a century, and a massive and a rise in insecurity. Too many people feel that they lack voice and control at work.

But the movement faces a massive challenge. Since Thatcher came to power, union density – the proportion of employees who are members – has fallen by half, and collective bargaining coverage by two-thirds.

Figures out yesterday emphasise the scale of the challenge. While membership increased a fraction in 2017, union density fell again. Just 23 per cent of employees are members of a trade union, falling to just 14 per cent in the private sector. Beyond the top-line figures, membership and collective bargaining coverage are lower where unions are needed most. It is the low-paid and low-skill workers, who individually have less bargaining power in the labour market, who are less likely to join. There is a risk that membership will continue to decline as the movement is struggling to recruit younger workers to replace retiring members.

The decline of union membership and collective bargaining should be a cause for concern. That’s because trade unions are good for workers and for the economy too. Strong unions help working people secure a fair share of the income that we collectively generate. The decline of union membership and collective bargaining has led to a growing power imbalance at work and contribute to a massive rise in inequality. Even the chief economist of the Bank of England has recognised that the decline in union density has contributed to the slowest period of wage growth in over a century.

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There are some silver linings in the membership figures. Both union density and collective bargaining coverage increased a fraction in the private sector, as did union membership among workers in their twenties. But the challenge is great.

The standard response to this challenge is to either dismiss unions as irrelevant – they are not – or to call on them to adapt. In response to the latter: they already are. Trade unions are innovating and taking a variety of approaches to fighting back. Established unions like GMB are organising in the gig economy, as are new unions like IWGB, who are crowdfunding to support their campaign against exploitation at Deliveroo.

Despite stiff employer opposition, Unite has fought back against exploitation at SportsDirect and BALPA have secured recognition at Ryanair. USDAW are taking a partnership-based approach to organising in retail, which has helped them retain and increase membership, and increase membership in this vital sector. Through pioneering legal challenges, GMB have scored a big win against Uber in exposing bogus self-employment, and UNISON defeated the government to overturn employment tribunal fees, ensuring workers are not priced out of justice. The TUC are doing innovative and important work in prototyping a new model for recruiting young private sector workers.

What we must avoid doing is blaming unions for the decline in the movement, and seeing trade unions through the prism of our own political priorities. Some have criticised unions for focusing on the “narrowly-defined interests of workers”. But that, of course, is their job. Trade unions are organisations of working people, accountable to their members, and focused on furthering the interests of their members.

The decline of the union movement has been driven by changes in the economy and by changing business models. But we cannot ignore the sustained and ideologically driven attack on the union movement, started by the Thatcher and Major governments and continued in recent years. Figures released this week showed that the number of days lost to industrial action over the last ten years was lower than for any period since records began in 1891. Given this, it is remarkable that the Conservative government of David Cameron – while claiming to be the workers’ party – further restricted the rights of unions through the Trade Union Act.

If the government is concerned about soaring inequality and stagnant pay, if the government wants to tackle the burning injustice of exploitation at work, and if the government wants to move towards a high skill, high productivity economy; then trade unions are their ally, not their enemy.

The ideologically-driven attacks on the union movement should be reversed and the Trade Union Act must be repealed. But we need to go further. In a report out next month for the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice, we will argue that we need to see stronger unions and a renaissance in collective bargaining in order to boost wages, improve job quality and tackle inequality. This means levelling the playing field so that unions can recruit and organise, and it means government support for collective bargaining. Instead of being demonised, trade unions should be embraced as social partners, involved in running the economy so that it works for working people.

Joe Dromey is a Senior Research Fellow at IPPR, He tweets @Joe_Dromey.

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