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We need a new trade unionism for a modern workforce

We need a new trade unionism for a modern workforce

Trade unions have been in crisis for over thirty years. While around half of all workers were members of a union in 1979, it’s little over a quarter today. What’s more, they’ve effectively been driven into a public sector stronghold: while well over half of workers in our public services remain trade union members, it’s just over 14% in the private sector – and many of those are in privatised or contracted out services.

Lower paid workers are the least likely to be unionised: only one in nine workers earning more than £7 an hour belong to a union, compared to more than four in ten of those on between £15 and £20 an hour. While 43.7% of those with professional occupations are union members, the same is true with just 12.9% of those in sales occupations. And there’s a big age problem, too: less than one in five 18-24 year-olds is or has been a trade union member.

Let’s not overstate the case: trade unions remain the biggest democratic movement in Britain, representing 6.5 million workers – or nine times the membership of the political parties put together. Members range from supermarket shelf-stackers to nurses, refuse collectors to teachers: pillars of our society, in other words. The legitimacy of the movement is often not made with enough confidence.

But we have undoubtedly seen a shift from a largely industrial workforce with high levels of unionisation, to a virtually non-unionised service sector working-class.

Partly, it’s a legacy of the huge defeats suffered by trade unionism in the 1980s. That was particularly the case for the miners after the defeat of the historic 1984-85 strike: there was a sense in the broader labour movement that ‘if the miners can’t win, nobody can win’. The failure of Labour to reverse anti-union laws – described by Tony Blair as ‘the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world’ – is another factor.

Mass unemployment in the 1980s had a role, too: Sir Alan Budd, a former advisor to the Thatcher government, suspected that their policies ‘never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation. They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working class.’

But it is the change in the nature of the workforce that, above all, makes it far harder to organise. The new service sector jobs are cleaner, less back-breaking and exclude women less, although they tend to be concentrated in the lowest-paid and most insecure work. On the other hand, pay is often lower: sacked car workers at the Longbridge car factory who ended up in the service sector were on an average of 60% of the pay. Communities are not based around supermarkets and call centres, as they once were around steelworks, mines and docks. Work is often more transient: there are around 1.5 million temporary workers who lack the same rights, and the number of workers forced to do part-time work because they can’t get a full-time job has surged in the current crisis. It is not uncommon to have two, three or even four different jobs in the same year. The average annual staff turnover for shop workers, for example, is 62%. Around half of men signing on to Jobseekers Allowance last did so less than six months earlier. This far more transient workforce makes it harder to organise in the workplace.

The explosion in unemployment and underemployment also pose a huge challenge. According to the TUC, if you include ‘economically inactive’ people not included in the official unemployment figures and those forced to do part-time jobs, there are over six million people looking for full-time work. Such a huge army of potential jobseekers strengthens the hands of bosses and saps the confidence of other workers, because they feel less confident about rocking the boat knowing there is no shortage of others willing to replace them.

The weakness of the trade unions has had real consequences for working people. The wealth created in Britain over the last thirty years has been increasingly concentrated in the bank accounts of the people at the top, rather than in the pay packets of workers. Over the last thirty years, the bottom half’s share of the national wealth has fallen from 8% to 5%. Back in the 1970s, wages accounted for around two-thirds of the economy: now, it is just 53%. Four years before Lehman Brothers crashed, the incomes of the bottom half were already flat-lining; for the bottom third, they were actually declining. The lack of strong trade unions to fight the corner for workers was one key reason.

There’s no question we need a new model of trade unionism to account for the change in the nature of the modern working-class – and to fight to win a far higher share of the wealth being produced by workers. To do so, we should look back at past experiences. In the 1880s, for example, trade unionism was largely confined to relatively well-paid skilled workers. The challenge was to recruit unskilled workers: or ‘New Unionism’, as it was known. In the 1930s, as the car industry began to expand, particularly in the West Midlands, it was speculated that car workers would never be able to be organised, because their work was so regimented: they sat in rows in almost military-like conditions, prevented from communicating. But they ended up among the most organised sections of the labour movement.

Today, there is a huge potential appetite for trade unionism among non-unionised workers. According a poll by Unions 21, 47% of workers who had never joined a union believed they had a future, compared to just 31% who did not. For men, the biggest deterrence was a perception they did not achieve anything; for women, the biggest turn-off was cost – although, presumably, if they had confidence in unions’ ability to win for them, the expense would be less of a consideration.

In particular, we need a new unionism specifically focused on the service sector. That means moving away from an exclusive focus on workplace-based organising: work is just too transient for too many people. Community organising has to be taken seriously. Unite are taking a step in the right direction with their new community membership – but all unions needs to be taken it seriously.

Organising the unemployed needs to be on the agenda. During the Great Depression, there was the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement – though it was treated with suspicion by the trade union leadership and the Labour Party. Unionising unemployed people is not just important because it gives them a voice: so many people out of work helps to drag down the wages and conditions of other workers, and weakens trade unions.

There needs to be a specific strategy for unionising the young: for the first time since World War II, this generation faces a worse standard of living than their parents. Unions should consider co-ordinating a national youth movement – possibly through the TUC – with this in mind.

It also means engaging with new protest movements, like student groups and anti-tax direct action campaigns like UKUncut. Both trade unionism and new waves of activism can learn from each other. For example, mainstream trade unionism has still failed to come to grips with social media, a key new possible means of organising in an era of transient, insecure work.

There’s no shortage of crises facing trade unionism, but there are real opportunities to rebuild a dynamic labour movement suited for a modern workforce. The foundations are already being laid: but there is a long way to go.