In Perspective

Written By: Catherine Macleod
Published: July 6, 2017 Last modified: July 6, 2017

It’s a simple question. There should be a simple answer. The question is this. Why is trades union membership declining so sharply?

The figures are startling. Last year unions lost 275,000 members. In private firms membership dropped by 66,000 to 2.6.million; in the public sector by 209,000 to 3.6 million; and while there is still a higher proportion of women than men in trades union their numbers have fallen even more dramatically. And this at a time when we are told wages will be no higher in 2022 than they were in 2008.

Frances O’Grady, the redoubtable general secretary of the TUC, who has to navigate trades union factions, not to mention the egos of trades union leaders, blamed the dwindling membership on the loss of good quality jobs and the rise of the gig economy. Others are not so benign. Rather, they say, too many trades union leaders and officials are keener on pursuing internal power struggles and inter-union rivalry than recruiting new members.

My survey is not scientific but it is difficult to find trades union members under 40. Most don’t appear to know why trades union membership matters, they don’t regard unions as relevant, and they’ve never been been approached to join. And there was no difference between the young, skilled workers and those working on zero hours contracts with little job security.

Of course, Frances O’Grady is correct when she cites the recruitment challenges arising from cuts to the public sector workforce and a higher proportion of insecure jobs. Hopefully she is also correct to claim the unions are rising to the challenge.

There is a pressing need for good, respected trades unions. The Guardian’s analysis shows the number of workers in the UK who could lose their jobs at short or no notice as grown by almost two million in the last ten years. We know businesses increasingly use more self-employed workers and ever more staff are recruited on temporary or zero-hours contracts. The upshot of these practices is less access to sick pay, job protection and redundancy, and low pay.

According to the TUC, zero-hours contract workers earn a third less than average employees.

Trade union membership has been falling for nearly 40 years so it’s very hard to fathom why the union leaders don’t try harder to arrest the decline. Their critics, within and outwith the trades union movement, accuse them of being vehicles of protest rather than the representatives and champions of the workers. This is not a new phenomenon. During the years of the Labour government, when workers’ rights and conditions were improved very little credit, if any, was given to the Government. Instead any progress was banked, and on the unions moved to their next complaint. Even then it seemed they would be the architects of their own decline. When they did not trumpet their success, they signalled impotence and irrelevance rather than effectiveness. (It seems the Labour government may have reinforced their reluctance. Only this week a former TUC official related how he was told not to make anything of their latest success).

Official figures chime with my own findings. Two out of five members are aged over 50, and even when parents have been life-long trades union members their children have not followed suit.

Unless the unions take radical action they risk, according to Daniel Tomlinson of the Resolution Foundation, becoming “a 20th century aberration.”

Although Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, claims their numbers are increasing rather than declining, Unison and every other union needs to accelerate their efforts. They need to prove, day in, day out, they are not merely vehicles of protest but there to enhance the rights and security of men and women at work.

Community appears to be rising to the 21st century challenge. As Community delegates will hear in Torquay this week their union leadership is reaching out unapologetically to ‘gig’ economy companies, and the thousands who work on online platforms. Their innovative Indycube, membership of which offers a package of benefits, including legal advice, is tailor made for the independ­ent workers (https://www.indycube.community). Community are hoping to sign up.

This new army of online workers deserves the same safeguards and support as workers in traditional employment, and as well as supporting individuals Community is promising to ensure ‘gig’ workers have a collective voice to be taken seriously by the Government and employers. Not willing to be bystanders Community are hoping to shape the future of the expanding ‘gig’ economy, to make trades unions relevant to the future.

This is an honourable goal, and if trades unions continue to prove their relevance to the well-being of workers and families, workers will take note. If they fail, their self destruction will
continue.