Our focus on this blog is in organising, and by extension, growing stronger unions, so it was with great interest that I read Seamus Milne’s column in the Guardian entitled ‘The problem with unions is that they’re not strong enough’. At the end of the piece I was left thinking ‘what are the solutions?’
In a considered piece, Seamus lays out the challenges that we face as a movement and the impact that it has on the wider society. As we have mentioned before, the decline in union membership and collective bargaining has an impact on how we are all doing in our economy and wider society. He states:
Between 1975 and 2007, the share of wages in national income fell from 65% to 54%, while escalating inequality within that smaller share has meant stagnating real wages for low and average earners.
Quite rightly, we focus on the decline in union membership; it’s where we derive our power and influence. But, what what does that loss mean to our everyday lives? The figure quoted above is just that. A loss in membership, of influence in a sector and in the ability for workers to collective bargaining for their wages and conditions resulting in stagnating wages and a reduced share.
But let’s put these figures in some context. The ETUI has the average level of union membership across the EU at 23% which puts us above average, higher than Germany (19%), Spain (16%) and France (8%). The nordic countries are racing ahead with an average of 70% between them. So how are we able to be above the EU average and have such a gap in comparison to other nations? The quick answer is that in contrast to the UK, other European trade unions have much more influence sectorally which has been institutionally enshrined. Unions are not solely reliant on membership for influence. Is this the answer to our challenges?
Repeatedly on this blog we say that there is no silver bullet to the challenges we face, we must look at a range of options available to us and consider their suitability to our problems. So what are the possible solutions?
Earlier this year, some of us posted blogs on this, and rather than rehash all the postings, I wanted to highlight some passages which can contribute to the debate.
Firstly, Carl blogged on how unions can give people the power they need to get what they want. In that posting he suggested:
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.
In my own posting on building for the long term, I argued that we need to remember that organising is about building accessible campaigns that resonate and build activism:
…we need to reorientate our view of success of campaigns to incorporate organising more fully. By doing that, we move away from gimmicks, from relaunches and branding for its own sake. To win on the issue is important, but equally so is building a sustainable grassroots who continue to campaign, demand change and build for it.
Finally, on an optimistic note, Paul reminded us that David is winning more often than we think. And that when unions take a proactive role (my emphasis) in their workplaces, and communities the results benefit all:
At a time when tens of thousands of union members face the prospect of losing their jobs, and are struggling to make ends meet, I’m reluctant to reach for pat assurances that all is well. Of course, all is not well. 2011 was a tough year for unions and their members. 2012 looks like being tougher still. But that makes it even more important that we take heart from – and celebrate – each and every success we have