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Unions Hold Key To Unlock Equality

Trade unions are crucial if we want to see a prosperous economy and a healthy society. As delegates gather for the annual conference in Manchester, they celebrate 150 years of the Trade Unions Congress.

In that century and a half Britain has witnessed hard fought for improvements in workplace rights and prosperity as unionisation grew, but also a decline in those rights and increasing inequality as successive governments eroded those gains with anti-union laws.

Today, we launch a new report ‘Tackling Inequality: The Role of Trade Unions’, which analyses the importance of unions in bringing about a healthier economy and society.

Read the report here:

Our findings are underlined by another recent report by IPPR, which highlighed the crucial role that unions play, and in a blog by Geoff Tily.

Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur to the United Nations on extreme poverty and human rights, and who is visiting the UK later this year, succinctly made the argument. He said: “Economic inequalities seem to encourage political capture and the unequal realisation of civil and political rights.” 

In other words in an era of unprecedented stagnation in wages and productivity, where the incomes of the bottom decile have barely grown (after housing costs) since 1998, these economic divides bring about a whole host of other social ills.To understand the role that trade unions play in this argument, you need only look at this graph:

As trade union membership has steadily declined since the late 1970s, the share of national income going to the top one percent has steadily increased. Meanwhile, the share of national income going to labour has fallen by around nine percentage points according to research conducted at Greenwich Political Economy Research Centre.

These economic divides wreak havoc on society. The work done by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson in The Spirit Level and The Inner Level has demonstrated how inequality has negative implications for community life and interpersonal trust as well as leading to a rise in mental health issues associated with ‘social evaluative threat’ and diminished feelings of self-worth.

The Financial Times had a brilliant exposé of the conditions in Blackpool that, we would argue, are the result of inequality. Loss of good jobs and a rise in the incidence of ill health. We know that ill health is socially determined.

That is, if you are poor, you are more likely to die earlier but also live fewer years of life in good health. Sir Michael Marmot wrote as such in The Marmot Review, “social inequalities in health arise because of inequalities in the conditions of daily life and the fundamental drivers that give rise to them: inequities in power, money and resources.”

So what can be done?

We know that trade unions face an extremely hostile environment in most of the mainstream media and policy circles. The Trade Union Act 2016 was widely criticised for infringing on human rights to collectively organise and freedom of association. Our report, as well as the work done recently by the Institute of Employment Rights, calls for the Act to be repealed and a new Ministry of Labour to be introduced.

Trade unions also need to target younger workers, members are ageing and we know that young people have been disproportionately impacted by the financial crisis. For example, if you are an over 50 public sector professional you are around 20 times more likely to be in a union than a low paid under 30 in the private sector. The TUC’s new WorkSmart initiative provides some hope here and huge gains have been made by IWGB, UVW and GMB in the gig economy.

While last week the Department for Education warned teachers to not express political views in the classroom, our report calls for the complete opposite. We know that people’s experiences of school form their worldview and their opinions of issues such as inequality. If we are to truly offer balance and cultivate a society where citizens are active political stakeholders, we need to reinstate a proper technical and civil education in our schools.

150 years on from the initial meeting of the TUC, trade union membership may be at its lowest in recent history but there is an appetite for change. The evidence is there and polling shows widespread support for the union movement. For to achieve a fairer, more just economy will be impossible without a stronger trade union movement.