A new dawn for trade unions?

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Membership levels have tumbled since their peak in the late 1970s, so if unions are to continue to play an important role in the workplace change is necessary

Twenty-four-year-old Shen Batmaz has the date 4 September 2017 tattooed on her arm. “It was the best day of my life,” she explains. “It was the first day in my life that I felt I had power.”

This was the day she and her fellow McDonald’s workers first went on strike in what would become the start of widespread industrial action against McDonald’s, JD Wetherspoon and TGI Fridays in the fight for better working conditions, job security and living wages. Dubbed ‘McStrike’, the campaign has so far resulted in the biggest pay rise in 10 years for McDonald’s workers. As Batmaz puts it: “It’s changed workers’ lives.”

Batmaz, who became the main strike organiser and is now a union official at the Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), is adamant that such change would never have been possible without a trade union.

“Do you think the civil rights movement would have happened if people didn’t come together? Do you think women would have got the vote if people didn’t come together?” she asks.

But, especially given her age, Batmaz is a rare breed. Since Margaret Thatcher waged war on the trade unions in the ’80s membership levels have continued on a downward trend. While the latest ONS figures show a 103,000 uplift in 2018 to reach 6.35 million UK members, it’s a far cry from the 1979 peak of 13.2 million.

The figures are lower still for the future workforce, with just 4.4% of members aged 16 to 24. As economist and Labour peer William Jordan said in his opening address to the House of Lords debate on the future of trade unions in July this year: a “whirlwind of disruption has taken its toll on worker representation in most countries, and nowhere more so than here in Britain, the birthplace of trade unionism”.

A dying breed

So why the decline, and is it terminal? And what, given the fraught nature of industrial relations in some quarters in the past, does this mean for HR?

Some might be tempted to attribute a large part of this demise to HR having evolved to champion workers’ rights to a much greater extent. When he first started work in the printing industry Richard Eastmond, senior director of people and organisational services at Amnesty International, says HR wasn’t really “a thing”.

“It was IR and IR was more of a standalone profession, and that harks back to the ’60s when unions were much stronger,” he says. “Then there was a move from industrial relations directors to HR directors and the balance of power shifted between management and unions.”

So good HR was seen in some quarters as displacing the need for unions. Something that (given the often-combative relationship between unions and employers) was cause for celebration among some.

But this is an unhelpful and dangerous logic, feels Eastmond. “I’m sure some places say ‘engagement is high so we don’t need a union’, but I don’t think that’s possible,” he warns.

“It’s not a binary thing,” agrees Danny Mortimer, CEO of NHS Employers. “If an employee values being part of a union and gains something from access to good representation and having collective voice then good HR is about engaging with that.”

HR should regard a strong relationship with unions as an opportunity to better engage with its workforce, agrees Acas’ chief executive Susan Clews.

“It shouldn’t be a power struggle,” she says. “On an individual workplace level HR wants to engage with employees, and if there is a union there then that’s a good channel as it’s a ready-made voice arrangement.”

And the issue with unions and HR not working together as much as in the past is that HR professionals are as a result now facing mounting internal ER issues and employee tribunal cases.

Newspaper headlines deliver evidence of a rise in such matters. Widely publicised claims of sexual harassment and bullying have hit almost every industry. Acas’ individual dispute resolution service has seen the number of cases involving a tribunal claim go up by 40% compared with last year (the organisation has taken on 98 more staff to tackle this increased workload).

A key issue driving this situation, says Matthew Taylor, CEO of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) and author of the Taylor Review, is “the decline of collectivism, the rise of individualism and so a shift in public attitudes, expectations and norms”.

“As routine jobs are taken by machines and non-routine jobs are growing and becoming highly individualised in skill requirements, people think ‘I’ll cut my own deal as what’s the point in collective action?’” agrees political economist and principal of Hertford College, University of Oxford Will Hutton. “Which is why there’s such a high number of tribunal cases as people think ‘my case is very particular so I’ll deal with it myself on a one-on-one basis with my employer and get a settlement from them’.”

Christina Colclough, director of platform and agency workers, digitalisation and trade at union UNI Global, agrees that a rise in individualism has led to a fall in the collectivism that the union movement relies upon. “We are living in a time of the ultimate victory of capitalism,” she says.

“When I do speeches around the world I ask the audience ‘who in this room is a worker?’ and maybe 50% to 60% put their hands up. Then I ask ‘who is employed by an organisation?’ and 95% put their hands up. So I say ‘what makes you believe you’re not a worker?’ and they say ‘oh I’m an expert or an engineer…’

“This shows that we’ve been persuaded that we’re something special and that ‘a worker’ has become synonymous with someone in a factory or a cleaner, when actually it’s everybody.”

Political factors also play a key part in the decline of unions. “When we look at the UK we see that there have been sustained deliberate efforts to reduce the influence [of trade unions], starting in the ’80s,” says Melanie Simms, professor of work and employment at the University of Glasgow. “It’s the policy context that makes things really difficult and we have a context of successive governments that, over time, have wanted to reduce and get rid of them. This wasn’t by chance.”

The UK has “some of the most restrictive union laws in Europe”, agrees Becky Wright, executive director of Unions21, pointing to archaic rules such as ballots for industrial action still needing to be made by post. More recently there’s been the introduction of the Trade Union Act 2016, which made collective action harder through the requirement that 50% of union members must vote in a ballot for strike action.

Wright also points out that the union’s demise has gone hand in hand with the decline in industries where unions were traditionally strong. “There used to be a lot of dock work but there isn’t anymore,” says Wright. “Industries that have declined most are the ones where unions were present.”

An important place

So have trade unions in the UK simply had their day? According to Labour peer Margaret Prosser the union’s ‘death’ is overplayed. “The trade union movement remains the largest voluntary member organisation in the country so it’s not to be sniffed at,” she says. Take the rail industry where strikes regularly hit headlines for disrupting commuters. Or the NHS where disputes over junior doctors’ pay have rumbled on for the past three years.

According to Colclough the changing world of work and subsequent reskilling agenda is creating a new need for unions: “The rise of AI and data is changing how we work, where we work, the time of day we work. Unions need to understand how this affects the skills required of members, and for members who will lose their jobs to tech how to ensure they get a fair transition to new jobs.”

“Whatever happens with Brexit, we’re going to need people to be more highly trained,” agrees Prosser. “The government has set up an industrial strategy but it didn’t involve the unions or recognise the role they can and should play.”

The rise of workplace technology, gig platforms and surveillance have also triggered new workers’ rights concerns that unions should step in on, adds Colclough. “It probably wasn’t until Cambridge Analytica that we realised we are paying with our data,” she says.

“We also see companies trying to squeeze out the last bit of productivity from workers, so everything from measuring keyboard pressure to sensors in meeting rooms – all of that is surveillance and often people aren’t aware of how that digital world is a threat to their rights.”

There’s an economic argument for unions to return to greater influence too, says Taylor. “There’s been a recognition in the past few years that part of the reason inequality has risen is because of the lowering of the power of workers to negotiate fair distribution of rewards,” he explains. “And I think for many there’s the recognition that the decline in unionism is part of the reason we’ve seen this decline in fair distribution of reward.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Hutton. “The reason we have debt in the UK is because we have so much consumer debt, and we have consumer debt because people are using it to sustain living standards. The reason they can’t sustain living standards is because wages are stagnant and the reason wages are stagnant is because businesses have too much power, which creates inequality and macro-problems.”

Adapt to survive

But there’s no denying that unions need to adapt if they are to survive. “If they want to grow membership they need to be relevant in 2019, and I think a lot of what they sold back in the ’90s when I joined isn’t relevant,” says interim HRD at People Change Expertise Melanie Steel.

So how should unions adapt to reach the modern workforce? “That’s the million-dollar question,” says Prosser.

One answer is to reach parts of the working population long neglected by the movement. The most obvious group is the ever-growing number of gig workers.

The gig workforce is particularly vulnerable, with around three in four people who are running their own business in poverty, says Indycube founder Mark Hooper. The challenge, he says, is that this demographic won’t typically look to unions for support. “There’s an issue with the term union in this market as there’s a hangover of what people think a union is,” he says.

Modern-day alternatives to the traditional trade union – like co-operative for self-employed workers Indycube – are filling the void. There are also new unions emerging like the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents mainly low-paid migrant workers in the gig economy and has famously taken on Uber in the fight to give drivers rights like the minimum wage, paid holidays and pensions.

James Farrar, former Uber driver (who brought the first tribunal against the firm for drivers to be classed as workers) and chair of the United Private Hire Drivers union, a branch of IWGB, feels that the bigger traditional unions have so far failed to meet the needs of this group despite this type of precarious work having existed for a long time.

“We can’t say precarious work didn’t exist before the gig economy – I don’t buy that,” he says. “The people who are at the most vulnerable end of the workforce and are in most need of union protection haven’t had it. I like that Woody Allen quote that ‘50% of success is turning up’ and that’s true of trade union organising. Bigger unions failed to show up for these workers.”

Yet it’s a group that could be particularly receptive, Farrar feels: “We’ve seen it before; that it’s often the people who have left their own countries who then have the resilience to understand what needs fixing and put energy into that.”

Specialist interests

Gig and migrant workers are just one part of the picture though; unions have also long neglected their traditional private sector comrades. And it’s come at a cost, with the positive growth in membership in the latest round of reporting masking a decline of 47,000 private sector members.

“The challenge we have is that 85% of the working population is in the private sector and unions are having a harder time reorienting to those areas,” says Wright. “But most people by and large do want some form of collective agreement at work.”

The McStrike campaign is proof of this, with the BFAWU getting behind private sector hospitality workers. Wright believes perhaps the biggest opportunity for unions to innovate lies in them becoming more focused on niche groups of workers.

“What we’re seeing is unions that have a clear industrialised entity are growing, but in unions that are more generic there isn’t much growth,” she says. “We used to have loads of different unions and they merged into super-unions. I think it might be time these super-unions start breaking themselves down a little bit.”

The IWGB is one of a number of smaller specialist unions flying in the face of the big players’ decline. Its success, believes Farrar, is down to being closely connected with its members.

“We’re a grassroots union and we’re very focused on staying close to the fight of individuals, so there isn’t a huge layer of corporatism or a managerial layer,” he explains. Being close to the ground means it has made its mark through innovative public campaigns including flash occupations at the Tate Modern and salsa dancing on picket lines at the University of London.

It’s a similar story for the Pharmacists’ Defence Association (PDA), which at around 10 years old has already reached 30,000 members (mainly private sector) and won the vote to represent Boots pharmacists after eight years of campaigning.

The union’s strength, says director Paul Day, is down to its focus on just one profession and the fact that it was set up as a membership organisation: “We’ve come up from the community we’re serving so I think we’re seen as part of their world rather than an outsider.”

Wright adds: “Unions need to move into areas where people work now. It’s always harder for more established older unions to innovate into new sectors but no-one is saying ‘this union was this and we’re now going to be the new union for robotics’, and they should be.”

Day agrees: “There will always be changes in jobs. If you look at the biggest threat and change to employment now it’s the increasing evolution of automation and robotics. So if there’s a union for cashiers but robots replace cashiers then this will affect you as a union. But as other jobs are created people need new unions.”

A younger clientele

Attracting younger workers should be another priority. “The problem is young people find it difficult to identify with the relevance of unions. Unions talk the language of collective bargaining and old-fashioned class struggle, and a lot of younger workers don’t identify with that,” says Marshall-James CEO Andy Cook, adding that the middle-aged, white, male demographic of most unions’ leadership alienates many.

It’s no secret that trade unions have long faced something of an image problem. Ask someone in the street what springs to mind when you say ‘union’ and you’re likely to get back Billy Elliot, the controversial figure of Bob Crow, and equally-divisive Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

By TUC deputy general secretary Paul Nowak’s own admission it’s not surprising that young people are largely disengaged with unions today. “When I grew up my mum and dad were in unions; it was part and parcel of work. But young people haven’t had that,” he says. “I’d be sceptical of joining a union if I had never seen one, if there wasn’t a union in my workplace, if I hadn’t seen the difference a union can make. It’s a bit of a leap of faith to join.

“One of the most depressing things we’ve found is that young people often feel there are problems at work but that there is nothing they can do about them – that it’s just work,” he adds.

Simms points out that younger workers are doubly disadvantaged as they are often the ones in some of the most precarious jobs.

“They are interested in work and employment, but the sectors that employ young workers – like retail and hospitality – aren’t unionised. And to unionise an average pub unions would have to go in and recruit members who will only be there for six months or so. And that’s if you can even find them in the workplace as their shifts can change at two minutes’ notice,” she says.

“The problem is not the young workers. The problem is the structure of the labour market making it difficult to organise young workers.”

Then there’s the staunch political line many unions toe, which can alienate some.

“It can be hard to get the message across to people about the work unions are doing because it’s overshadowed by political rhetoric,” says Cook. “If you’re a 25-year-old working in banking and unions are saying ‘banking and capitalism are bad’ it can seem like they’re criticising you directly.”

As far as Taylor is concerned trade unions “do themselves no favours because of their role in politics and their internal politics”.

“The weakness of the union movement is political in two senses. One that a lot of people hear about unions in relation to their role in the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn, which is fine if you’re a Corbyn supporter but if not it sends a message that unions are only for left-wing people,” he says. “The other issue is unions themselves often suffer from difficult internal politics that don’t necessarily represent the views of the membership.”

And from what Nowak has seen the biggest challenge with engaging young workers is, quite simply, that they don’t see the point. He highlights TUC research that found young people “didn’t know what unions were, but when it was explained to them they were interested”.

“The key thing is making that initial breakthrough,” says Nowak. What is less obvious, however, is the right way to do this.

Digital opportunities

Which brings us to technology. “Unions are embracing social media and technology to reach people,” says Day. He points out that because the “days of 500 people being on one production line” have gone there’s a need to organise workers virtually, through virtual member meetings, promoting campaigns on social media and online petitioning tools.

However, Nowak cautions against technological solutions replacing the human approach. “We do need to move away from thinking the solution is ‘let’s just have an app’, and instead think about the little things we can do with technology to make things as easy as possible for members,” he says.

There’s the opportunity for unions to use tech to help reclaim some worker power, Colclough points out: “It can be used to pinpoint where discrimination or bias takes place and strengthen worker position.”

Take initiatives like Project Spotlight, which uses data to map worker conditions that unions can then use as evidence to campaign and negotiate with employers. For example, smartphone apps can track whether employees work during their commutes and thereby over their contracted hours, and whether staff are on their feet too much and not receiving breaks.

“Data is information and at the moment there’s a huge power asymmetry as companies have access to and mine far more data than we do, so unions must become more digitally savvy and learn how to use it,” says Colclough.

Beyond immediate working conditions unions also appear to be broadening their attention to bigger picture societal issues. Take the University and College Union’s initiative on climate change, which presses for greener government policies and pledged support for the student walkout on climate change. Or calls from several unions for a four-day working week. Or the TUC’s This Is Not Working campaign, which called on the government to take action to protect workers from sexual harassment.

“We did a large-scale survey on women’s experiences at work and sexual harassment stuck out like a sore thumb and that’s what’s informed our work in building an alliance and policy work,” says Nowak on the latter. “We’re not a think tank; this has come from listening to members and what matters to them.”

He points to other big-picture initiatives coming out of the membership base, including research currently underway on the experience of working-class employees. “If we look at the areas that voted Brexit, it’s trying to understand what the concerns of workers are. So we’re doing a big initiative talking to people about whether being working class holds you back at work and in education,” Nowak explains.

Future policy

So unions themselves have a huge role to play in the movement’s revival, with some encouraging campaigning work, shifts in the use of tech and engagement with younger and atypical workers underway. But for many the real game-changer will be come from government policy.

It has committed in its Good Work Plan to implement the Taylor Review’s recommendation to significantly reduce the threshold for employees to request to set up information and consultation arrangements from 10% to 2%. This will come into force in April 2020.

Taylor says this momentum presents perhaps the most critical opportunity for unions to reverse their decline: “In some ways the political argument for unions’ social and economic relevance has got stronger and the hostility to unions from the right has significantly died down as people have started to realise that the weakness of unions is part of the reason for the issues around inequality.

“I suspect that if the conversation continues as it is at the moment unions may find they are pushing at if not an open door an unlocked door, in arguing it should be easier for them to organise and collectively bargain,” he adds.

However, while he is hopeful for further policy change, Taylor is wary that the recent change in prime minister could spell a rise in government hostility towards the movement once again. “Some of the things we’ve seen from this government in terms of good work and greater willingness to negotiate with trade unions we might see a reverse of under Boris Johnson’s premiership,” he muses.

Only time will tell how the government plans to proceed and no doubt its impact will be critical. But the future of the trade union movement is clearly dependent on multiple factors.

“There are three elements to it,” says Wright. “The attitude of government, the attitude of unions, and the attitude of employers.”

As Farrar puts it: “A union is a bit like a shark: it’s got to be moving forwards or it dies.”

This piece appeared in the September print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk

Further reading

What do good HR-union relations look like?

D&I and HR at trade unions

Union power around the world

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