Billy Bragg at Tolpuddle Festival in 2009.
8 honest challenges for trade unions
Yesterday I put together 8 surprising facts about trade union membership. It’s been a really popular post, and it was based on the latest Office of National Statistics trade union report. I thought it would be good to look at some of the challenges for trade unions the ONS report raises too.
So here we are – 8 honest challenges for trade unions, based on the latest statistics.
1. We need to up our game in the private sector
While it’s great that membership has increased in each of the last four years, it still means that only 14% of private sector workers carry a union card. That needs to go up.
2. We need to reach out to young workers
The latest membership figures showed a small rise in the number of 16-24 year olds who are in a union, but less than one in ten young workers are union members. Again, a good trend, but from a very low position.
3. Those workers who need unions the most are less likely to be in one
We have a relatively strong position amongst professionals and middle income earners. The flip side of that is that membership is particularly low amongst the low paid (13%) and temporary workers (14.5%).
4. There are too many non members in unionised workplaces
I described the fact that 40% of UK workers work where there is a union as an opportunity but is also a challenge. How can we convert them from consumers of our resources to contributors?
5. We have a problem in London and the South East
Less than 1 in 5 workers in London and the South East are members of unions. It’s not for want of a lack of effort by unions in that part of the country but perhaps the nature of work and the workforce demands new think about new approaches that match the scale of the challenge? The map below shows the proportion of employees who are union members. The problem is clear.
6. We’re getting old
Union membership is highest amongst workers aged over 50 (32% density amongst this age group). It’s lowest amongst younger workers. It’s a similar situation with activists. If we don’t secure the next generation of members and activists, we will literally die off!
7. Our activist base needs to reflect the membership
While we should celebrate relatively high rates of membership amongst women and black workers we need to make sure this is reflected amongst our activist base which remains largely white and male.
8. We need to develop a ‘one movement approach’ to addressing these challenges
The scale of the job is so big that it’s beyond any one individual union to get those density, membership and collective bargaining numbers going up in the right direction. So we need a collective response. Low density in the private sector is a problem for workers in the relatively high density public sector because it’s hard to maintain islands of (relatively) decent pay and conditions in a sea of declining standards.
It’s a good time to remember the old song: “Solidarity forever, the union makes us strong”