From the TUC

Teaser for our first Organising Academy webinar

14 Sep 2011, By Guest

Hopefully next week we’ll be able to post up the Organising Academy’s first webinar on the recent Trade Union membership figure which Carl has blogged on (spoiler – there will be charts and numbers, but all digestible, promise).  In the meantime, I thought I’d share a pared down version of my recent speech at Unions21 ‘s fringe at the Compass conference.


On March 26th, half a million people, both public service users and providers joined together to form the largest trade union organised demonstration in at least a generation to march against the coalition government’s cuts programme. They marched:

  •  To protect jobs and the public services they value
  • For an alternative to austerity
  • As a genuine and visible big society

They marcher for the good society and I believe that without strong unions, there will be no genuine good society.  I want to speak briefly today about the positive impact that unions have already within the workplace, and beyond in the communities where we live and look to how we need to ensure that not only does this continue but is extended for the benefit of all.

Let’s start at where we are traditionally associated, which is in the workplace. Collective bargaining, when working conditions are set following negotiations between employers and employees through their formation of a union is an incredibly effective tool for reducing inequality. In 2008, OECD found that of the 23 countries that had lower income inequality than the UK , 19 had higher collective bargaining coverage.

And this macro sword of justice effect is replicated at workplace level. David Metcalf in a report for the Work Foundation found that where unions are recognised there is an increased likelihood of the workplace having an equal opportunities policy, and positive policies and approaches to parental leave, term time working, access to part time working and job shares. Overall, women in unionised workplaces are much better off in terms of career opportunities and other work arrangements than their colleagues in non-union workplaces.

A woman’s place, most definitely, is in her union.

But, the benefits of collective bargaining are not just on the side of the worker. One of the most common caricatures of trade unionism portrays us as a barrier to innovation and a drag on productivity. But this simply isn’t the case.

TUC research has shown how the presence of strong and effective unions in workplaces actually brings benefits for union members and employers.  We refute the assertion that collective bargaining has a negative impact on productivity and that facts back that assertion up.  In 2008 the majority of the 10 OECD countries ranked above the UK for productivity had both higher collective bargaining coverage AND union density than the UK .

And the presence of unions greatly reduces the workplace resources needed to resolve workplace disputes. Where these is a union present in a workplace the likelihood of issues being resolved quickly and without need for an Employment Tribunal is much higher. In fact research shows that employment tribunal claims in union workplaces is less than half that of workplaces where there is no union.

But our presence in building a good society goes far beyond the workplace.

In the trade union movement we are rightly proud of our 200,000 workplace union reps. It is the work that they do, that brings real meaning to members on the meaning and value of holding a union card.  However, their value to and impact on society isn’t limited to the workplace and doesn’t end when the clock off. The TUC’s Unions in the Community survey published in 2009 found that union reps are eight times more likely than the general population to engage in voluntary work and give more of their time to community organisations.  Significant numbers of reps are school governors, trustees or sit on the governing bodies of local organisations. Others were volunteers in local community organisations. Others were volunteers in local community organisations like sports or social clubs and many reported spending up to five hours a week on community activities.

In helping to build and bridge social capital, and instinctive care and concern for the well being of our communities means that to see the Big Society in action already you need look no further than the trade union movement and our workplace reps.

Building a new economy

For too long our society was being sold the false promise that liberalisation of capital and deregulation of markers would guarantee long term economic prosperity for the many. In arguing against this, we, in the trade union movement, were told that not only were we on the wrong side of the argument but that our time had come and gone and we should become reconciled to our inevitable fate.  In 2008 the neoliberal dream became a nightmare and it turned out the masters of the universe weren’t so omnipotent after all and all I can say is that it wasn’t nurses who were treating the stockmarkets like casinos in Vegas.

The TUC and our affiliate unions are leading the way not just in demanding an alternative to the cuts but also an alternative to the kind of economy that got us into the current mess in the first place.

Much has been said about the credit boom and the subsequent catastrophic build up of household debt in the UK . But less has been said about the circumstance that lead to people taking on so much personal debt in the first place.  A driver for this was the squeeze on wages over the last 30 years.  In 1975 the share of wages accounted for by GDP was 65 per cent – today it is just 53 per cent.  Between 1978 and 2008 the wages of middle income Britain grew by an average of just 56 per cent against an increase of GDP over the same period of 108 per cent.

This created a low wage, high debt society of turbocharged inequality and diminished social mobility and has lead to what the TUC has recently identified as Britain ’s Livelihood Crisis which is also subject of our latest Touchstone pamphlet.  This livelihood crisis has seen millions become trapped in low wage, low opportunity and insecure jobs and an increasing number of people denied decent work, pay, skills or pensions and facing growing economic uncertainty.

We’ve been building for a good society since our inception, we’ve had knocks along the way but we’re still arguing for a good life, for all, not just the few.

When it comes to the UK economy, it can’t be a return to business as usual. The response must amount to nothing less than a transformation of Britain ’s political economy and business model.  And it’s a transformation that unions must be at the heart of.

This is because we remain the only progressive force in society with the capacity to re-establish the fundamental connection between the well being and prosperity of working people and the health of the wider economy.

The basis of this trade union contribution would be built on the following principles;

A return to wage-drive growth as opposed to debt driven growth

A recasting of the relationship between unionsunions, workers and employers.

A call for companies to operate in the interests of stakeholders – not just shareholders

Underpinning all this are public services that are free and universally accessible, publicly funded, owned and accountable. But services that are flexible and responsive to the changing needs of our communities and ensuring a greater voice for public sector workers and service users in the design, implementation and monitoring of delivery. Public service reform that is based on collaboration and community interest, not on marketisation, fragmentation and the commodification of public assets.

Colleagues we are not arrogant to say that we are the silver bullet in tackling all the problems we face in society.

The latest trade union membership figures published at the end of April highlighted once again the scale of the organising challenge faced by unions.  Whilst the rate of membership decline has slowed over the last ten years – particularly when compared to the 80’s and early 90’s – union influence remains vulnerable to further erosions in membership and density.  Both density and collective bargaining coverage have continued to fall in the public and private sector with public sector collective bargaining coverage in particular falling quite dramatically over the last 3 years.

The trade union response to this must if anything be more decisive that the response to shaping a new economy particularly as it’s surely no coincidence that when union membership and density declines, inequality within the workplace and across society increases. We know that to deliver on the good society we need to:

  • Find new energy in building the capacity of unions to grow beyond traditional sectors and bargaining areas.
  • Encourage innovative approaches to extending membership and collective bargaining – learning from examples outside the UK , develop community-based approaches to trade unionism, to organise and bargain sectorally and develop smarter use of social media to reach out to non-members and offer easier ways to become active.
  • Have a serious and sustained effort to promote trade unionism – our values and the collective benefits of membership – and the positive role that unions can and already do play in the workplace and society more broadly.

To a large degree it will be down to unions and the TUC to make the necessary internal adjustments and changes that will enable us to meet these challenges more effectively but there are also external factors which will need to be addressed if unions are to be able to grow.

Red, Green or whatever stripe you want, we need to start making policy asks from parties that seek to address the overriding inequality in society because it is through strong union that this can be overcome. During the Labour Government, the only changes to employment law focused on the individual, making it increasingly difficult for unions to operate under changing ownership and outsourcing.

Colleagues, the achievements of organised labour , working women and men, have had a wide impact across society. 8 hour days, pensions, health and safety laws, maternity leave (to name a few), can all be taken for granted thanks to the product of struggle and victories of those union members that have gone on before us. These are challenging times. We must continue to fight against these cuts which will devastate our society which we are doing through our All Together campaign. We need to continue to push for changes that make work more humane and values the people working in, and living around it. In addressing these challenges, we will create more opportunity to reduce the gap between the richest and the poorest, to have well funded and run public services and an economy that isn’t based on the debt of those who don’t have. I hope that in continuing support for unions and the work we do we will build our good society.