A union renewed

When a former Trade Union General Secretary suggests that the position of Trade Unionism in Britain is weak, politically engaged in the wrong way and says that his erstwhile comrades“cannot connect to a whole swath of the workforce that thinks they died out with the ark” it’s worth paying attention.

A lot of aspirant Labour types don’t like talking about the industrial position of Trade Unions.

In part, this is ignorance. If you’re a twenty something graduate, as most aspirant political hacks now are, your knowledge of the Trade Union movement is usually pretty limited.

Unless you actually go to work for the trade union movement, as some do, then the politics of unionism is a strange and mysterious country, populated by doughty warriors with fearsome reputations, dozens of obscure factions, tribal loyalties, rivalries and bitter hatreds that end only when challenged by outsiders.

In that sense, it’s a lot like Scotland.

There’s another reason too. The general perception among Labour types is that if you talk about the challenges and difficulties of modern unionism in an unapproved way, you will later discover that your kneecaps have been mysteriously shattered. Best to stay quiet, smile nicely and ensure that if you put your name forward for some future preferment or selection, you will not provoke a union political officer into demanding that this not progress. Then you can be a bit more frank, eh?

Well, my kneecaps come pre-shattered. Besides, I love Trade Unionism, believe it is a force for good, have seen how it preserves jobs, improves wages and transforms working conditions. So the following is a paean of love, not hate.

A long recessional

Read the data on Trade Union membership, and a few things stand out.

Let’s look only at the last decade and a half, so we are dealing with a period in which Labour legislation was, if anything, moving to make life easier for union recruitment.

First, Trade Union membership has declined significantly in the private sector. Since 1995, Trade Unions have lost 890,000 members in the private sector, even as the private sector workforce grew by nearly three million.

Trade Union membership in the private sector will likely go up this year, as it did last, because private sector employment is increasing post-crash. So last year we saw an increase in private sector workers of 213,000, leading to 43,000 new private sector workers in Trade Unions and an extra 160,000 non-unionised workers. This means that even as union membership in the private sector expands, it actually is becoming less dense.

You can see this in the following chart.

Walking the blue line

The impact of this becomes clearer when you delve further into the statistics: When Labour came to power in 1997, A third of employees in the private sector had unions organised in their workplace, and just under a quarter were covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

By last year, less than 17% of private sector workers were covered by collective bargaining, and the share of workplaces with unions even present was down a fifth.

Outside of the public sector, Trade Union penetration is now extremely low in almost every field. You can see this here:1


Nor does the future look particularly rosy: The next chart shows the density of union membership by age, over time.


You can see that the sharpest decline in union density is among younger workers, while union membership is concentrated disproportionately among the over 50s.

The trends are moving the wrong way. In 1995 a 50-year-old worker was forty per cent more likely to be a trade union member than a 25-year-old worker. Last year, they were almost twice as likely.2 As older workers retire, therefore, we’re likely to see further declines in union density.

This is more speculative, but I also think patterns of working are trending against union membership. Union membership is particularly low among those who have a length of service of less than five years, among part-time workers, among overseas born workers, temporary workers and those in smaller firms.

What does all this mean? It suggests that while we should see a short-term growth in private sector union membership as the recession ends, Trade union membership will likely become an increasingly unusual phenomenon in the private sector.

What’s strange is that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason this has to be the case.

In recent years British Trade Unions have proved very effective and constructive representatives of their members in the private sector.

It is not too much to say that the way in which Trade Unions have worked with employers during the recession has been a model of intelligent negotiation and representation. Employers, especially in manufacturing, have a great deal to be thankful to both the Trade Union membership and leadership for. More importantly, so do their members.

So what next?

There are some broad political consequences of the polarisation of trade union membership for the Labour party-union relationship.

If I’m right, Trade Unions increasingly represent full-time, white-collar, public sector workers, and are far less representative of younger, mobile/insecure, blue-collar and private sector workers.

Since Trade Unions to speak up for their membership, this will create a broad tension between union leaders and the Labour leadership when those interests appear to be in conflict (for example, holding down public sector spending in order to create space to support investment in private sector or infrastructure spend). That will be a political challenge that the party leadership and union leadership will have to negotiate in the short-term.

But there’s a bigger question – my analysis suggests that the unions badly need something transformative to encourage union membership and representation growth.

There will be two routes to achieve this. The first would be a broad front expansion of workplace organisational ‘rights’. It is around this that most Trade Union leaders are currently focused.

My suspicion is that this will neither work, nor be politically acceptable.

Some changes will likely be beneficial, but if the problem for unions is that younger mobile/insecure, short-term employed, part-time, and small business arenas are largely un-unionised, then most unions would not be able to change this, even if there were no barriers at all to organise workforce by workforce.

The industrial organising model just isn’t set up to offer great benefits to the new workers. There’s no point reversing Taff Vale, if there are no more Taff Vales.

So what Labour could offer Trade Unionism is a path to the new workforces.

This would likely not be around the sort of mass industrial unionism that is in such sharp decline, but a renewal of the sort of ‘craft unionism’ that dominated trade unionism in its early years, with individual crafts gathered into overarching group.

Further, unions themselves need to consider what the benefits they offer to such workers are. Some of this has actually been expressed by union leaders (I think of Unite’s support for Credit Unions, for example).

Savings schemes, shareholdings purchases, low-fee pensions, and unemployment protection becomes far more significant that workplace organisation. A future Labour government could do a great deal to support and encourage this kind of unionism without arousing the ire of either employers or union-hostile private sector workers.

Finally, there is the question of Labour’s own relationship with the Trade Unions.

Most in the Labour party don’t really want to focus on this , because it is both politically sensitive and loaded with historical meaning.

If you observe that it is increasingly odd that unions that represent less and less of the workforce have half the votes at conference, and as the unions become increasingly homogenous, are effectively in a position where any union-coordinated position is nearly guaranteed to be official party policy, it is taken as an assault on the Union link.

On the other hand, the union leadership probably feels that their restraint is much underappreciated. Given the scale of formal union power in Labour’s structures, the surprise should perhaps be how little is demanded of the party leadership, not how much. Labour’s leadership opposes strikes, speaks out against pay increases and is relatively lightly chided.

So we end up in a situation where the union leadership feels undervalued for its private, unstated recognition of unionisms own political limitations, and at the same time feels that it is being criticised for having an influence it rarely directly uses, and union leaders feel they must preserve their current position at all costs because it represents the only way unionism will be protecting.

What’s missing, I think is a sense that the Parliamentary Labour party and the trade unions have a some organisational union membership driving common causes to pursue that would make all of this tension less relevant.

That would be a pretty productive use of Labour’s policy review.

  1. It’s worth noting that of the industrial sectors still with a significant union density, Electricity and Gas supply has fallen from 70% density to 40%, Water supply has fallen from 57% to 28% and transport has fallen from 50% to 40%. The only industries not to show major declines are those in the public sector []
  2. and remember, the 50-year-old is less likely to be a union member themselves! []

2 Responses to “A union renewed”

  1. Jim Moher

    But how much attention to a former union official who used the union to skip to a Blairite career in Parliament is justified? It was a pretty rambling interview, and the abusive pop at Len McCluskey and other current union leaders, can only have alienated them further and so any valid points made are lost.

    It doesn’t take a genius to point out the weaknesses of our trade unions in the current deep recession, and since their rout through adventurous and over mighty challenges to the state (miners’ strike) in the late ’70s\early ’80s. Their catastrophic loss of membership and recognition\bargaining coverage since also owes much to the destruction of our heavy and manufacturing industries .

    But a better historical perspective is needed, before writing off the unions as an important societal force. It is not the first time that they have been down (1880-90s) only to rise again from the 1900s to make the first 70 years of the twentieth century their own.

    However, they will need to review that history, to learn from their mistakes as the TUC and Unions 21 seem to be trying to do. See also the History & Policy Trade Union Forum site for a more thoughtful take on that history than the usual romanticised, legend-based one.(http://bit.ly/tuforum)


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