Changing the world of work for good

On the TUC’s 150th anniversary, it is tempting to argue that the low paid, zero hours working lives of young trade unionists in McDonalds and TGI Friday’s are not so very different to those of nineteenth century match women and dockers. The treatment of labour as a mere commodity – less than human and the cheaper the better – is a familiar story throughout our history.

But, despite the parallels, it would be a mistake to gloss over how capital has radically changed over the last century and a half – not least because the contemporary challenge for unions is to match that pace and scale of change. If we’re going to organise the ‘new working class’, then we must change too. We’ve done this before.

Throughout our history we have engaged with the world of work as it is, shaping new technologies and ways of working to the benefit of working people. And we’ve reached out to those working in new jobs and in new ways of working – with the consistent aim of organising workers and driving up the quality of work and quality of life for our members, their families and communities. And that task has never been more vital than at a time when Facebook, Google and the other tech giants dominate the global corporate wealth league, and whose near monopoly of big data poses a threat to not only union bargaining power but popular democracy too.

Today, some 6m people are members of unions. We represent the largest, democratic vehicle for progressive change in Britain’s. We’re increasingly diverse, and more than half of union members are women. In Scotland, the STUC has been pivotal in establishing meaningful social dialogue and the Fair Work Convention. And the historical achievements we’ll be celebrating in our 150th anniversary year – on Saturday 2 June 2018 – sit alongside contemporary wins on pay, equality, health and safety and learning, and the positive material difference we make to working lives, day in and day out.

But for too many workers, unions are not part of that daily life. Union membership in Scotland is the second highest in the nations of Britain and the English regions, after Wales, but even here density is falling – down by almost ten per cent between 1995 and 2016. Fewer private sector workers and young workers are joining unions. In the private sector, only 1 in 7 workers are union members, and many never come into contact with a union. Two-fifths of union members are over 50 years old and less than a quarter are under 35.

When we’ve asked about why people join unions, the answer is often simply that somebody asked. But unless we turn the tide of declining membership we risk being invisible to a new generation of young workers.

That’s why in our anniversary year we want not only to celebrate our history but also to focus our attention on the future too. Over the past two years, we have committed to detailed and innovative research into the lives, interests and motivations of young workers. We have taken the time to ask them what they want from their working lives, and what we can do to change it for the better.

The STUC’s Better than Zero campaign has brilliantly exposed the insecurity faced by so many young workers in Scotland, namely, being at the sharp end of low pay and modern insecure work patterns. Using practical support for young workers, the campaign has engaged many who would otherwise have been isolated in today’s fragmented world of work. These issues came up time and time again in our work, too. While many would like to progress in their careers, workers in low-paid industries tend to have few opportunities to develop skills, gain a higher salary and increase job satisfaction. The barriers to young workers improving their lives at work are structural rather than individual. Supporting young workers to gain the confidence to organise collectively could help tackle some of these barriers.

One of the recent successes of which I am most proud is the evolution of the union role in supporting members’ learning and progression. Unions have always helped working people get a second chance to learn. In 1903, we helped found the Workers’ Educational Association, educating generations of workers who left school in their early teens. More recently, we set up Unionlearn, which, along with Scottish Union Learning, helps more than 220,000 people a year access new skills and training through their unions.

This experience, and the research we have done since 2016, has shown us that the best way to support and build trust with young workers is to improve their wellbeing at work immediately, and help to put them on a path to a more fulfilling working life through progression and joining a union.

We know that the transformational benefits of trade unionism are delivered when workers are part of a collective bargaining unit. So the goal of our innovation programme is to find a model of collective organising at work that engages young core workers – and that unions or the union movement can adopt, to bring them into our fold. We’ll be launching our new initiative to coincide with our anniversary, and I’m delighted that we’ve been able to build on strong support from affiliates for an innovative new approach.

As well as launching this flagship project, we also want to use the anniversary to show the threads that link our past, present and future struggles and successes. We are using a collection of 150 real stories to tell the overarching story of the TUC – and show how standing up for working people is more relevant than ever today.

The TUC150 collection presents a set of union stories from the last 150 years. It’s not a history of trade unionism. Nor is it a definitive list of the great women and men of our movement. Some are pioneers, stepping out from the cosy consensus of their day. Many are ground-breaking activists. Some did the work that resulted in the rights we have today and resulted in the institutions that protect working people, like the NHS.

Some stories tell of trade unionists living in extraordinary times – and rising to the challenge of their era. Pioneers like Scottish suffragist and trade unionist, Mary McArthur, who almost a century before it became law championed a national minimum wage. And like Emma Paterson, who in the 1870s set out to establish a union in every job in which women worked. Following in her footsteps today are members like former fire fighter Wendy Miller who, when she spotted a fire hazard in the Aberdeenshire supermarket she now works in, decided to put her skills to good use as a health and safety rep.

Today, young workers like Shen Batmaz and Nesa Kelmendi are taking on the global might of corporates like McDonald’s and Picturehouse Cinemas to demand a living wage. And at Sports Direct, the workers are steadily growing their union, after years of campaigning that has already seen them win higher wages for the staff, get agency workers the right to permanent jobs, and drag the business owner to Parliament to explain himself. They follow in the footsteps of people like Joseph Williams who was 21 when he founded the Musicians’ Union and Rosie Hackett who was 19 when she organised 3,000 Jacob’s Biscuits workers to strike.

From our earliest days, unions have challenged stigma and prejudice. As Britain has changed, unions have changed too. Sometimes we’ve had to challenge our own members’ prejudices – but over time we became champions of equality. Our stories include immediate STUC past-President Satnam Ner, who went from being the only BAME worker on his site in Rosyth, to working with his employer to improve diversity in hiring and running training courses for workers from BAME backgrounds.

These stories 150 years on from our founding show that, while much has changed, the TUC’s mission remains the same: standing up for working women and men, and making sure their voices are heard. We’re needed more than ever to make sure that every job is a decent job and everyone at work is treated with respect.

We’ll continue to do this at every level – in workplaces, in the regions and the nations of Britain, nationally, in Europe and working in partnership with our sister union movements around the globe.

We’ll do this in workplaces, building a strong and growing union movement, underpinned by trained, confident reps. Across Britain, we want winning for workers, but also working with a revitalised Labour Party to help ensure that the political voice we established over 100 years ago has the opportunity to deliver the worker friendly agenda set out in that 2017 manifesto.

And in Europe too. Because, as we face the future, our immediate task is to work together to tackle the great political challenge of our time, Britain’s exit from the EU. Brexit has laid bare how in a globalised economy it is even more important that we cooperate across borders and align ourselves with a trading bloc that shares our values. Put simply, given the growing global concentration of capital, if nationalism is the answer we are probably asking the wrong question. So, while the Single Market is far from perfect, on balance, it’s clear where working people’s best interests lie – with a model that enshrines the voice and rights at work that unions fought for and not as the 51st state of President Trump’s obscenely unequal America. I’m committed to ensuring the TUC does all it can to deliver a Brexit that works for working people. But more than that, that we play our part in fundamentally reshaping the British economy so that it truly does work for all.

Frances O’Grady is General Secretary of the TUC. She is its first woman general secretary. Prior to this, she worked for the Transport and General Workers’ Union before becoming the TUC Campaigns Secretary in 1994, founding the TUC Organising Academy in 1997 and being elected as the TUC Deputy General Secretary in 2003. She became TUC General Secretary in 2013.

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