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In an era of public spending restraint, how can economic inequality be addressed?

In an era of public spending restraint, how can economic inequality be addressed?

There is a large volume of evidence about the problem of economic inequality in the UK.  Yet as much as we need to know about the misery of its real-life impact, we also need to know what can be done to put it right. The three main political parties are each committed to continued public spending restraint.  This means that whoever wins the next election, it is highly unlikely for economic equality to be advanced by top-down investment in public services, top-ups to wages or improvements in the extent of social security.   

In a brief, to-the-point and accessibly written new book for CLASS and the Institute of Employment Rights, Professor Tonia Novitz and I are positive about the role trade unions could play in establishing a more equal economic future. We argue that legal reforms in support of free trade unions should be a key focus in campaigns about economic inequality and the opportunity for the UK to become a fairer place to live and work.  

Our assessment of the evidence confirms that collective bargaining can reduce economic inequality and that new laws are urgently needed if the benefits are to be realised.  The revitalisation of trade unions can be achieved without engaging in debates about public spending.  What is needed is a change in political attitudes towards collective bargaining and this means a change in the law to enable trade unions to organise freely.

Tackling economic inequality is not just a matter of wage poverty.  It is also a matter of promoting value and respect for one another, participation in decisions about families and personal futures, health and well-being, access to legal rights and confronting the blight of discrimination.  Trade Unions and Economic Inequality, sets out the clear connections between the weakening of UK trade unions and the rise of economic inequality (see figure 1).

In an era of public spending restraint, how can economic inequality be addressed?

UK trade unions have been weakened by forty years of media attacks and hostility from the political elite, yet they also face massive legal obstacles to their day to day operation.  The law has to be changed if economic inequality is to be tackled.  Economic inequality is a big problem in the UK and collective bargaining is a big part of the solution. Our recommendations for legal reform in pursuit of a more equal economic future include:

  1. Support for unions to freely organise and engage in collective action.
  2. Legal amendment so that all trade union members can be represented through collective bargaining.
  3. Sectoral negotiation to set minimum terms and conditions across industries.
  4. Protection of basic rights to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.
  5. To allow trade unions access to workers at their place of work to freely advise on the benefits of membership and collective bargaining.
  6. Information about trade unions to be available to workers at their place of work and for it to be made easy for them to join a trade union if they so choose.

Trade Unions and Economic Inequality is published by the Institute of Employment Rights / Class and is available at