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Trade unions: facing up to the challenges

23rd February 2017

Trade unions: facing up to the challenges

By Matt Wrack,
General Secretary of the FBU and Chair of the LRC

Anyone seriously examining the state of the trade union movement in Britain today rapidly comes face-to-face with some stark and worrying facts. In absolute terms the trade union movement is less than half the size it was when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister, falling from more than 13 million in 1979 to 6.5 million in 2015. In terms of density (the proportion of the workforce organised in unions), the decline is just as severe with around one quarter of the workforce organised in unions compared with more than 50% in 1979. Less than 30% of employees in the UK are now covered by collective bargaining arrangements, with the figure for the private sector only 16.1%. This reflects the much greater levels of trade union membership and collective bargaining arrangements in the public sector.

These long-term trends are also reflected in other ways. The past decade has seen the final demise of the ‘industrial correspondent’ - that specialist journalist within a news organisation who was an expert on trade union matters, industrial relations… and strikes. The news organisations are apparently so dismissive of trade unions that they no longer feel it necessary to have such specialists.

These matters should be the object of serious research, discussion and debate within the labour movement. It is self-evident that they are a key part of the picture of working life today. If work for many is seen as more precarious, if there are growing concerns about exploitation and about levels of inequality, then surely trade unions should be at the centre of any public debate. But we first need to face up to our own problems.

The TUC led a campaign against the Trade Union Bill introduced by the Tories after the 2015 election. There has been much self-congratulation over the effectiveness of the TUC campaign. But this misses the point that the Trade Union Bill is now an Act – it is law, and it is the most serious attack on the ability of workers to organise in a generation. It attacks our organisations, financially and politically, and it seriously weakens the ability of unions to organise industrial action.

The starting point of developing any strategy of resistance must be to face reality, no matter how difficult that might be. My concern is that too many are unwilling to do so. The result is an emerging strategy that focuses not on organising workers so that they can fight back but rather on lobbying the Tories in the hope that they will not be too ruthless with us. It is not an approach which convinces me in the slightest.

The start of rebuilding has to be in the workplaces. In the past, it was in the workplaces that our strength was built. It was largely a rank and file movement which saw off an earlier attack on trade union rights when the Heath government was defeated in 1971 and 1972 over the Industrial Relations Act. Our movement was able to undertake such a struggle because then there were tens of thousands of workplace representatives - shop stewards - able to build a movement largely from the bottom up. Against the 2015 attack there was no such movement.

Clearly there have been huge industrial and political changes since 1971 and since 1979. We need to discuss and address those. We may need to learn again the lessons which earlier generations learned about organising in the workplace in difficult circumstances and against the opposition of the bosses. But there are people already leading the way in organising the unorganised. If we want to reverse the decline of the past 30 years it will need to be done from the bottom up. General Secretaries may not always be too comfortable with the sort of rebellion which will be necessary – but it will be necessary nonetheless.

This article appears in the March 2017 issue of Labour Briefing, the magazine of the LRC

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