We are often told that unions have become irrelevant to modern society, or worse that they are in some way negative.
No institution is perfect, but trade unions do amazing work standing up for their members in the workplace and increasingly in the community (see for example the role unions played locally in helping block the environmentally and medically damaging biomass facility in Avonmouth). Many of us are given negative perceptions of trade unions because of how they are portrayed in the press (usually only ever mentioned if they’ve been forced into industrial action and then only described as militants needlessly causing trouble) and the legacy of the 1970s.
People who are against unions often argue that in the past ‘over mighty union barons’ ‘held the country to ransom’ and would strike ‘at the drop of a hat’. There may be some small germs of truth in this, but this is a gross exaggeration and is in part the result of attempts to undermine the legitimacy of unions and collective action. Even if this had been the case the situation in modern Britain is so far removed it makes such comparison meaningless.
Today union membership is at a historic low (though it has moderately increased in recent years), as is the power and influence of unions in our society. They’re even marginalised in the Labour party these days (though this could change under Corbyn). We already have some of the most restrictive trade union laws in the ‘democratic’ world which are about to get even more restrictive with the governments draconian new strike legislation, making union action very difficult. Furthermore, no worker ever takes the decision to strike and lose pay lightly (especially with the financial hardship of recent years), and with unions so comparatively weak and increasingly defensive the situation has to be pretty bad before they feel forced to resort to striking.
This has been the nature of the industrial action I have been involved in as a steward and branch officer for my hospital’s branch of UNISON. Continued pay freezes and rises below inflation have seen the value of NHS pay fall by between 10-16% since 2008. At the same time Government policies – like cuts to community care and other public services – have led to a huge increase in hospital usage (by 10% between 2013 and 2014 alone), whilst we have lost 35,000 staff (and 10,000 beds) since 2010. Those of us who are left are doing more work, for less money, whilst our pensions are attacked (we pay more in each year, for more years, and get less out at the end) in a health service with an increasingly insecure looking future.
Yet it still took until the winter of 2014 for our unions to decide enough is enough and resort to nationwide strike action. Even then it was only two 4 hour strikes over two months (and the threat of further action), as they wanted to minimize the impact on patients and were scared of being portrayed as too militant in the press. A far cry from the irresponsible militant image peddled by the Government and mainstream media.
My above example also highlights the pivotal role unions still continue to play in protecting the interests and wages of their members at work. By actively asserting the rights of employees to the fruits of their own labour they can act to restrain excessive pay at the top. Stronger unions advancing the interests of their members provided a strong check on the growth of inequality (which has exploded since the 1980s). In the 1970s the richest 1% in the UK owned around 5% of all wealth. Today the richest 1% own more than 15% of all of the wealth in Britain.
The decline of union power was just one of many factors that have seen Britain experience the fastest growth in inequality of any OECD country. But we should not ignore the important role unions can and do play in the fight against inequality. Rebuilding the union movement expanding into the precarious industries like social care, temping agencies call centers etc, and giving it the confidence to fight, could go a long way checking the insecurity and low wages so emblematic of work in modern Britain. It’s doing it that’s the hard thing.
That’s why we need to ensure all of us active in political and social movements not only join but also get active in unions in our workplaces. And if there isn’t one, try and set one up (a hard task alone but local unions and trades councils and unions already organising in that industry elsewhere will be only too happy to help you). We also need to encourage as many of our coworkers, friends and people we know in general to do likewise.
Unions have always had a larger social role beyond the ‘bread and butter’ issues of jobs and wages. Time and time again their financial and organisational support has been essential for the success of campaigns from the fight to win the vote for men and women to the anti-war and the now the anti-asuterity movement. Increasingly through initiatives like the Campaign Against Climate Change and A Million Climate Jobs Now unions are getting involved in the central challenge of our time; the fight to stop global warming and the destruction of the habitability of our planet.
As individuals we are almost powerless to overcome the status quo and effect change in our society. But collectively we are strong. Unions allow us to come together to stand up for ourselves and provide an organisational structure for that collective strength. For all these reasons and more, we need unions and we have to work together to defend them, especially in light of the government’s most recent attack.
Next week the TUC will be launching its #HeartUnions campaign to highlight the amazing work trade unions do in our society.
There’s a fair bit going on in Bristol. The Trades Council has a list of some of this activity. If you can, make sure you get involved: