How can we extend collective bargaining?
As usual with Gregor’s articles I found myself agreeing and disagreeing with him in equal measure (!), but he makes the very valid point that we need to ensure that we don’t ‘sell’ trade unionism as if its a product like any other – ‘just sign up here and all these benefits could be yours’. Of course, the reality is that the union advantage only exists because of the collective effort and activity of trade union members. The more active and engaged our members are, the more likely we are to be able to achieve collective gains. Winning collective agreements – and making those agreements worthwhile – is a function of active, not passive, trade unionism.
This feeds into a piece of work we’ll be picking up in the TUC in the New Year about how we make the positive case for unions and collective bargaining. The decline of collective bargaining has been relentless over the last 30 years. Even though union membership (and to a lesser extent, union density) has stabilised in the last decade collective bargaining coverage has continued to fall, meaning that today less than 1 in 5 private sector workers are covered by a collective agreement. Whats more, where collective bargaining has remained quite often it has become ‘shallower’: more consultation, less negotiation. All this matters to unions and to our members, but it also matters to society more broadly.
One of the factors underpinning income inequality in the last 30 years has been the decline of collective bargaining. As the TUC has shown, relative levels of income, wealth and social mobility for those on median incomes and those on higher incomes have diverged very considerably over the last thirty years. Under the Conservatives from 1979 to 1997, those on median incomes saw their salaries rise by 1.6% each year, while those on higher incomes enjoyed rises of 2.1% and the richest 1% experienced increases of 3.9%. Although this trend has weakened since 1997, wealthier groups have still seen their incomes grow considerably faster than those on low-middle incomes. Median earners have had a 1.9% growth in their incomes each year since 1997, while those on higher incomes and the wealthiest 1% have enjoyed 2.1% and 3.2% respectively.
Of course, one obvious way would to reverse the negative trend in collective bargaining coverage would be to grow our membership and secure more new recognition agreements, but with the average CAC ‘win’ covering just 137 workers, that’s a hell of lot of small, hard-fought campaigns.
So here’s starter question for 10 – how do we go about extending and deepening collective bargaining coverage? What more could unions, government (and even employers) do to promote a collective approach to employment relations? As a special Christmas incentive, there’s an Organising Academy polo-shirt on offer for the best suggestion! Suggestions in the comment box please.