Are Trade Unions still relevant in the 21st century?

01-02_d78-368The logical response to the above question is: have we entered a world where Unions are no longer needed? There has been much soul-searching in the wake of Bob Crow’s death, BBC Big Questions asked a similar question on Sunday about the future of the unions, where people from the business community took on two stalwart’s of the labour movement from Tyneside. The debate descended into a tug-of-war about the 1980s and the Miners Strike, a complete distraction from the question at hand. There is no doubt that this period was formative in the current economic and political position of Unions in society; but to talk about this in a debate about the future of Unions distorts the question. This is not a debate of nostalgia or regret, it is about the sort of lives that young people will live and how they will experience employment and work; and their voices have to be central to this debate.

The future of the unions is not a matter of judging previous industrial action and the action of individual unions, deciding who was right and who was wrong, or tarnishing Bob Crow or Len McLuskey for this or for that. The Anti-Union Right enjoy this distortion as it moves the debate away from the kernel issue: do those in work still need protection and representation? It descends into personalities not politics. And this is convenient for those who wish to ignore the injustices and inequalities that haunt our society.

Today Oxfam announced that the Britain’s five richest families are worth more than the poorest 20%. We’re also well aware now that the majority of the UK’s poor are in work and the assertion that it is the unemployed burdening the Treasury has been proved to be a fallacy: it is low wages and rogue employers that are weighing down the Treasury. Both centre-ground parties: the Conservatives and Labour wax lyrical about ‘making work pay’ or ‘the cost of living crisis’ but they seem unwilling to consider the reasons why work isn’t paying and why the cost of living is skyrocketing. So we return to the central question: do those in work still need protection and representation?

If the answer to this question is yes, then we have to consider the concept of Collective Bargaining as a mechanism to lever better wages for people, and to ensure that work does pay. Collective Bargaining levels in the UK are a lot lower than similar sized European economies and it correlates with the low wages that blight UK workers; falling from over 80% in the 1970s to below 30% today. In places like France and Germany, wages have remained relatively high during the recession and both countries have high densities of collective bargaining in the main industries of their economies. This is not what the Right calls Unions ‘holding the economy to ransom’. It is about ensuring democracy is ingrained into every area of public life; allowing workers have a say in their lives at work, and to develop a sense of control over their own destinies and futures. It would also place wages, terms and conditions, and respect at the heart of our economy, above profit and above greed. It is a matter a priorities. And once again, this is not about some nostalgic lurch into the past, it is about an organic renewing and reorganising of Collective Bargaining agreements to fit current needs. The thinktank Class has called this ‘Reconstruction after the Crisis’, and this is exactly what is required: a reconstructing of the battered economy with people and the heart.

This is not to say that Unions are perfectly functioning organisations that currently have the structural and political prowess to position themselves in the ways necessary. Workplaces have changed dramatically over the last quarter of the 20th century, and Unions must adapt appropriately. Workplaces are now much more dispersed and fragmented; the days of shipyards and pits, with communities built around industry, are over, and workers are no longer concentrated in one singular geo-political space for long periods of time. They are dispersed across time and place, with remote-working and oscillating zero-hour contracts. The modern workforce is transitional and ever-changing and shifting. This means that traditional forms of organising need to change and be reinvigorated. Central to this is Unions integration into communities and with broader societal movements such as the Green movement and other campaigning groups such as War on Want. The affiliation fees saved from not funding the Labour Party could come in very useful…

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