The latest figures on Trade Union membership released at the end of April were sobering reading for trade unionists and the wider labour and progressive movement.
Amongst other things, the figures revealed that the impact of the government’s cuts programme on trade union membership is becoming apparent. In a year when the size of public sector workforce shrank by over 250,000, union membership in the sector fell by 180,000. Overall density, that is the proportion of employees who are members of a union, fell slightly to 26% and membership by 143,0000 to 6.4 million.
Arguably a more accurate way of assessing union influence is looking at the proportion of employees that unions collectively bargain on behalf of. Today in the UK just 30% of workers have their pay and conditions negotiated collectively by a trade union – in the private sector just 1 in 5 workers are included in collective bargaining arrangements.
To prove that this is not just a problem for unions and their members, but also society in general and the cause of equality and social justice in particular, we need only look at the proportion of the nations GDP that goes on wages.
In 1975 the share of wages accounted for by GDP was 65% – today it is just 53%. Between 1978 and 2008 the wages of middle income Britain grew by an average of just 56% against an increase in GDP over the same period of 108%. Over the same period the pay in real terms of those in well paid jobs and professions has more than doubled.
It wasn’t all bad news and there were a few shafts of light piercing the gloom. Membership in the private sector increased and despite the fall in membership the proportion of employees in the public sector who are union members held up. We should also member that the trade union movement is the UK’s largest voluntary organisation with levels of membership and an activist base that our political parties can only dream of.
However the debate isn’t so much about whether or not unions do face some significant challenges in respect of membership, as to what to do about it. Of some things we can be certain. A wholesale return to the false promise of credit card trade unionism and individualised membership won’t work anymore than relying solely on a fundamentalist approach to organising.
Those of us in the trade union movement who have been involved in supporting union efforts to grow know that there is no silver bullet solution to the challenge of increasing membership. However, the collective experience of many TUC affiliates and the TUC over the last 15 years has demonstrated that working collaboratively and sharing experience, prioritising resources for organising and training and developing new and existing staff so that they are better equipped to adapt to the changes demanded by a more focused approach to building membership; have all put unions in a better position to organise more effectively:
But if the trade union movement is to make a serious attempt to halt the decline in membership and density, break out into new sectors of the economy and fulfil their potential in the fight against inequality we’re going to have to be more radical and innovative.
Such innovative approaches might include increasing collective bargaining coverage by organising along supply chains, bringing trade union membership within reach of the majority of employees who work where there isn’t a union via affinity schemes and promoting trade unions more generally and membership and activity specifically via both current and future campaign work. A clear and present opportunity exists in the way the TUC and the trade union movement in general has lead the opposition to the government’s austerity programme.
As we rededicate ourselves to the task of building the movement we do so with the realisation that increasing membership is not an end in itself. It is merely a means towards the achievement of a greater goal. Restoring dignity to work and securing adequate reward. To give working people more control of their lives both within and beyond the workplace. To offer protection against the worst that this government would subject them to.
We know that those with power tend not to give it away. Those that need it have to get it for themselves. Trade unions have always played a vital part in this process. Today, though the strategies and tactics may differ, the goal remains the same.
This article was originally published at www.labourlist.org