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The state of unions in Britain

The General Council Report for the next week’s TUC Congress in London is a very useful document. The quoted statistics concerning union membership are sobering. In April, they recorded a union density amongst employees of 26.6%. In the public sector, it remained stable at just over 56 per cent but in the private sector density fell to 14.2%. Collective bargaining coverage fell to 30.8% — 64.5% in the public sector, down by 10% since 2000, and under 20% in the private sector.

The report spells out more details:

Whilst union membership in the public sector has increased by almost 350,000 since 1995, density declined by five per cent over the same period.

This suggests that during a period of significant employment growth in the sector the capacity of unions to keep pace with this and maintain and increase density in the sector was limited. The government cuts programme and a likely increase in the use of outsourcing and privatisation will place additional pressures on public sector membership and density moving forward.

An additional pressure on public sector trade union organisation has been the focus on facility time and other paid time off for union reps. Since the latter part of 2010 there has been a steady stream of parliamentary questions relating to the cost of the provision of facility time and other time off for trade union representatives.

Whilst this has yet to result in any legislative or other proposals from the coalition Government, there is clearly an ongoing attempt to create a narrative that portrays paid time off for union representatives as an inappropriate use of public finances. This flies in the face of evidence showing the value of facility time to employers and the economy.

As the percentage of union members is only calculated on employees, and does not take into account the self-employed and the black economy, then the total proportion of the workforce who are organised may be lower than the figures suggest.

We are currently therefore teetering on just a quarter of the workforce in unions; what is more, trade unionism is not evenly distributed even within the public sector. For example, the teaching profession, or fire brigades have higher union densities than hospitals. In the private sector, especially manufacturing, hospitality and retail, trade union membership is far too low.

One thing we have learned by hard experience, is that there can be no sustainable islands of trade unionism, if the prevailing employment culture remains hostile.

One particularly revealling statistic is that during the last decade of growth of public sector expansion, union membership has grown in absolute but not relative terms; and the main weakness seems to be lack of capacity of the unions: there are simply not enough trade union minded activists.

The ageing profile of trade unionism seems to reflect the different types of employment that young people are involved in, which is more casualised, lower paid and isolated. However if an entire generation grows up with limited expereince of working in a trade unionised environment, then this might consolidate and perpetuate. our weakness.

Trade unions therefore need to be especially supportive of those young activists who do come forward, and take a long term view about organising some difficult employers, like call centres, or food and retail premises; where immediate results may not justfy expenditure, but strategically we do need to crack.

It is also necessary that all unionists, whether full time officers or lay activists, examine the institutional obstacles, preconceptions and vested interests that sometimes prevent us being as good as we could be; and that means abandoning some long cherished presumptions.

One Comment

  1. Chris says:

    Expanding trade union membership is probably the most important task of the labour movement at the moment. Contrary to what New Labour thought, de-industrialisation hasn’t reduced the numbers of the working class, but it has altered its circumstances and posed new challenges to working class organisation. Work out how to organise difficult industries and I don’t doubt there will be plenty of people willing to join, but unless it happens the liberal-conservative consensus of the last 20 years or so will continue, because a strong labour movement is vital for socialism.

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