Now is the time
The list of job losses and closures gets longer and longer every day – the last few days alone have seen closures and actual/potential job losses in companies as diverse as M& S, Waterford Wedgewood, Barclays, Viyella, Woolies, Adams, Fishworks and Cattles. And for every job thats lost you can bet your life there are 10 other working men and women worrying about how secure their job is; will they be next; and what all this means for them.
Fear of unemployment, the potential impact of the recession on household incomes, and the prospect of things getting much worse before they get better, mean there are very few people who will be untouched by the downturn. In recognition of this fact the TUC, with the support of Citizens Advice, has produced a ‘Guide to Dealing with the Economic Downturn’. As well as containing advice about employment rights and dealing with redundancy, the guide covers issues as diverse as dealing with debt and how to access skills and training. Its a useful publication – and its just one very small element of the work that unions and the TUC are undertaking to try and defend our members in these incredibly uncertain times.
But defending our existing members is not enough. Yes we need to fight to save jobs, and do the best we can to maintain terms and conditions in the face of concerted action by some employers to roll them back (see here for an example). But we need to do more than just play defence. Now is the perfect time to get out and make the positive case for unions – to show we CAN make a difference, and there is a value in union membership. Easier said then done I know when union officers and reps are swamped by a whole raft of competing pressures – but I think its vital that we use this period to get out and stress the value of unions to individual workers and to the UK economy as a whole.
Union decline over the past three decades is part of the story of how we got into this mess in the first place. Industrially, weakened unions have found it hard to hold boardrooms to account (the growing gap between boardroom and shop floor pay during most of this period is clear evidence of this); politically, weaker unions have found their ability to influence Government’s diminished. The failed ‘neo-liberal market-always-knows-best’ agenda (castigated here in the TUC’s New Years message) was underpinned by a vicious circle of union decline: ‘weaker, marginalised unions -> greater deregulation and labour market ‘flexibility’ -> weaker, marginalised unions’. We need to break this destructive circle. Unions are good for workers, and (whisper it), they are also pretty good for business, and society as a whole.
So lets make 2009 the year when we grasp the membership nettle. Lets make it the year when we try and win the 3m workers in unionised workplaces who aren’t union members (2m of whom claim they’ve never been asked to join); the year we reach out to Britain’s 2m (and, I suspect, rising) ‘vulnerable’ workers – 500,000 of whom work in unionised workplaces or companies; and the year where we articulate the positive case for strong, effective, independent trade unions.