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7 September 2018updated 09 Sep 2021 3:08pm

Union membership is falling. But joining one remains as important as ever

In an age of freelancers and the gig economy, unions offer workers a greater understanding of their rights.

By Ronan O’Shea

When I tell peers I’m a union member, I receive looks of incomprehension or outright disapproval. This is London in 2018; the playground of Thatcher’s children.

We are a generation raised under a confused ideology of rugged individualism that posits union membership as antithetical to modern business; the same children who grumble through lunches at desks, weekends in offices, and lives spent tethered to grossly inflated mortgages and the jobs that pay for them. How liberating. 

Given their fractured history in recent times, the value of trade unions in the UK is understated. My industry, journalism, is particularly primed for a fragmented workforce.

It is ego-driven and individually centred; commissions are increasingly difficult to obtain, with the need for a constant stream of content attracting graduates with huge student debts willing to get their name out there in exchange for a pittance. It is a situation both the industry and the workers have yet to fully understand, and the only clear lesson is that it shouldn’t be this way.

My union has given me a greater understanding of pay rates to which I was hitherto clueless. When a nationally renowned weekend magazine compromised its own payment guidelines, the NUJ informed me of my rights – leading to my payment for a spiked piece rising by a quarter.

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Thanks to my union, I came to know my rights with regards to late payment, became more vocal in defending myself, and more confident in advising other freelance journalists. It helped me understand non-disclosure agreements and, just this week, having discovered a website had falsely attributed pieces to me, ran me through my legal options.

Perhaps most importantly, being in a union has helped me understand when I am wrong. In an age that eschews the idea, finding out you’re on the wrong side of a dispute is of equal if not greater importance to developing as a worker and, that purported enemy of the union, an individual. I’d fallen into a dispute with a PR company over a proposed work trip. While enigmatic in their phrasing, they had laid out their conditions in the small print. As with store returns, so with work.

Unfortunately, the perceived relevance (and membership rates) of unions is at a low ebb. The NUJ has just 23,237 paying members. Nationally, figures from the Department for Energy, Business & Industrial Strategy show a slight rise in union membership between 2016 and 2017, with around 6.2 million employees who are trade union members. This falls far below the peak of over 13 million in 1979, with the private sector heavily outranked by workers in the public sector in spite of the former’s more fragile levels of job security, pension, pay and holiday rights.

Worryingly, union membership has gone up for workers over 50 but fallen for their younger peers, who will spend more time in the workforce, while permanent staff are more likely to join a union; also worrying, given the increasing prevalence of the gig economy and part-time employment. In recent years, there has also been a decline in union membership among workers in the lower age brackets (16-24 and 25-34). London has the lowest membership rates throughout the UK, a cause for concern given its citizens tend to work longer hours than their counterparts around the country.

Meanwhile, a 2017 report by the Fabian Society unveiled that the five fastest growing private sectors had low levels of union density, including construction, retail and food & accommodation services, a concerning state of affairs given the known abuses (think Mr Ashley) committed by employers within such industries.

A worker shouldn’t be shoehorned or coerced into union membership, nor denied their right to join one. But increased member rates throughout UK industry would serve as a bulwark against the excesses of modern neoliberals business, which mimics the ethos of small government throughout the workplace.

A system akin to Germany’s Aufsichtsrat model (in which ten employees and ten shareholders sit on a supervisory board), at the very least, might go some way to picking apart the misguided narrative that has been built around trade unions over the last thirty years, while unions themselves must find ways to attract younger members, who will shape the future working environment.

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