Our generation is your friend

Just over 25 per cent of the British workforce is in a trade union in the UK today. Proportionately, that’s 20 per cent less than 30 years ago. At the last count, only five per cent of workers aged 16 to 20 were members of a trade union in Scotland, growing to just 11 per cent for 16-24 years olds. When asked how much they know about trade unions, 42 per cent of the young people responded that they knew nothing at all whilst a further 44 per cent said that they didn’t know very much. Despite this, research demonstrates that 63 per cent of employees under 30 believe strong trade unions are needed to protect the working conditions and wages of employees and only nine per cent of young people have unfavourable attitudes towards trade unions.

Let’s be honest about the unions. They are vitally important. If it weren’t for trade unions we wouldn’t have capped working hours, health and safety, pensions, pay increases, holidays, flexi-time, support through any disciplinary or grievance procedure…t he list is almost endless. Furthermore, if trade unions disappeared tomorrow, the Government and employers would find it much easier to repeal these hard fought for and won ‘benefits.’ The Government’s recent proposals on pensions, pay, and employment tribunals would be pushed through entirely on the Government’s terms. That is why people should continue to join, and be active in, a trade union. More people are members of a trade union in the UK than all the political parties combined and they are still the biggest, and most democratic, vehicle for working class people to hold the Government to account – that’s why the Government relishes in focusing on declining membership without analysing why. This is a simple argument which must be re-won.

However, although trade union officials are more trusted than business leaders, journalists, or politicians, the unions are facing a crisis of membership and confidence.

Since 1979, anti-trade union laws have become progressively harsher, regardless of which government is in Westminster. This indicates a negative trajectory for trade unions, which could prove fatal. Furthermore, the collective bargaining power of unions that allowed the increase of wages across sectors was also crushed by Thatcher. But people tend to forget the economics at play here. The continual fall of the value in real wages in the 2008 economic crisis shows that without a decent wage, demand in the economy must be ‘topped up’ by credit. And we all know where that road leads – triple dip recession, growing inequality and a narrative of austerity.

Perhaps because of this anti-union legislation (amongst other things), inertia and ‘pale, stale, male’ bureaucracy has continued in the trade union movement. This, combined with a lack of efficacy in collective bargaining, can make the unions seem mouldy. Yes, there is the first female TUC Leader, and yes, most members of the public sector trade unions are women. But look at everything else in between. From young people who have been politicised through the Iraq invasion, tuition fees and cuts to further and higher education; to young people who don’t know much about politics, how are the unions relating to them today?

I asked some young people I know who work in both unionised and non-unionised workplaces what their views on trade unions were. These quotes probably show the two opposite sides of the spectrum on the trade unions (if we ignore, for now, those who don’t even know what a trade union is).

  • Person works in un-unionised restaurant and is not a member of a union: “What difference would it make? If I start trying to unionise, they’ll cut my hours. Even if we do become part of the union, we are so isolated in this one restaurant that I’m not sure what support we could get.”
  • Member of a union in public sector and active: “I joined the union as soon as I got a job with the Council. I’ve been brought up that you should always be a member of a trade union. As soon as I joined, the branch asked if I wanted to be youth officer. I am also a trained steward. I find it difficult to balance at times, because being a steward is a lot of work and there aren’t enough active members to share out the workload. Some people at work laugh at me for being so involved in the union, others say it’s a thankless task. But most people don’t talk about it at all. I hardly get any response to the members’ newsletters I send out each month. It’s a bit disheartening, but I know it would be worse if people weren’t active in the union. And I like to think that because I am young, I can inspire other people to become more involved.”

Most young people I know who are in a trade union work in the public sector. Indeed, 77 per cent of private sector workplaces have no union members at all. But, the changing nature of work, the employer/employee relationship and the decrease in union muscle over the past 25 years has particularly affected union membership in precarious workplaces. Problems in these workplaces include timing of toilet breaks, temporary, fixed term, and, increasingly, zero hour contracts, and little knowledge of employment rights or equality legislation.

The unions are floundering in these areas and the biggest challenge for a trade unionist is facility time. Many employers use ad-hoc excuses, and threats (clear or underlying) of unemployment, to stop young people getting their full facility time entitlement and young people feel intimidated to even ask in the first place. Without this facility time, they cannot begin to address the issues in these workplaces.

Most young people I know who are active in a trade union are active because they are politicised in some way. Political protest movements such as peace, women’s liberation, ecology and human rights are a growing feature of life in the UK and can have a radicalising effect on participants. Evidence confirms that increasing numbers of people are taking part in ‘unconventional’ forms of political action, and that contrary to notions of ‘youth apathy’, young people are increasingly involved in protest. These people are more likely to be activists in protest movements than in trade unions and political parties (More than seven per cent of people say that they are active in some sort of politicised movement, compared to just over two per cent in the unions).

Between 2000 and 2005 over three million people took part in protests against the government. Over a third of these protestors were between 12 and 25, yet this group formed only 17 per cent of the UK population in 2005. This is far higher in terms of figures and percentages than the late 1960s and early 1970s.

However, over the same period there has been a sustained decline in trade union density, disputes and strike action, with the year to March 2011 registering the joint lowest number of strike days since the Office for National Statistics’ records began in 1931.

Trade unions need to learn the importance of these statistics and be less sectarian towards other organisations fighting alongside them. For example, Coalition of Resistance comes under attack from some trade unions for trying to ‘sabotage’ union demonstrations. This is misplaced anger. Groups like Coalition of Resistance are full of young, politicised people who are also in trade unions, or one day will be. But these young people are demanding more than just a quiet march around the police-lined streets; and the trade unions are failing to provide this. They want a bit of direct action – the feeling that they can change something, even if only for a day.

Let’s remember, it was not just the trade unions which fought and won in years gone by. Many things were also fought and won by direct action and illegal activity; trade unions must realise that they do not, and never have, had the monopoly on protests or on bettering the lives of the working class.

The active members at the base, who are passionate, dedicated and extremely generous with their time, are the ones who are demanding action and calling for the unions to move against austerity. And the trade union movement has demonstrated that it is able to mobilise its members in combination with other groups affected by the cuts.

Interestingly, the proportion of people who say that ‘organising a nationwide strike of all workers against the government’ should definitely or probably be allowed has grown since the mid-1980s. Unison and other unions have recently passed a motion on co-ordinated industrial action. The TUC has been looking into the legality of a general strike in terms of the Human Rights Act and European case law. There is scope for this, but on the state’s terms. Without revitalising the membership and giving the working class as a whole something to fight for, the turn-out will be low, the mood will dissipate and we will be worse off than before.

As such, political protest is, and will continue to be, central to the movement against austerity. It can unite those that depend on public services with those who work to provide them. But the unions need to start making these arguments. They need to become more coherent in opposing redundancies (all redundancies – even voluntary ones mean no job, or a job with worse terms and conditions, for young people); in pushing the government by not just taking industrial action against trade disputes but against austerity; in destroying the bedroom tax and the Tory’s welfare reform agenda; and they need to know their real allies and their real enemies in order to do all of these things.

I think the priorities for the STUC over the coming years are four-fold:-

1) Targeted, politicised recruitment of young people, including ones who know nothing about trade unions but may be involved in for example local community groups. This is getting a little better with the unions into schools initiative, trade union stalls in student unions etc, but they need to learn lessons from political protests and from the ‘Facebook generation’. With the average age of a union activist being 47, if they don’t start engaging with young people on young people’s terms, they will be dead in ten years.

2) Break with the Labour party. The unions in the public sector have huge potential political muscle. But, because of the relationship with Labour, they are hindered – particularly when it comes to engaging with protest movements. The unions have gained very little from their support of the Labour Party. Tony Blair did nothing to relax the anti-union legislation. And Ed Miliband told the public sector workers that they were selfish for going on strike on 30 November. Where is the line which the Labour Party has apparently not yet crossed? I would estimate that only a small minority of young trade unionists (active and passive) are in the Labour Party. Certainly in the Unison youth committee nobody is a member of the Labour Party. The unions’ relationship with Labour cannot continue.

‘Dance with the people that brung you.’ Those on the Left are not the enemy of the trade unions. Statistics show that people, particularly young people, are increasingly identifying as on the Left and even the far Left. The unions simply must tap into this.

4) Hold the Scottish Government to account in seeking assurances it is in full support of facility time – including for those on fixed term contracts etc – and send guidance out to all employers which young workers are made aware of. The independence referendum can provide the space for this debate. The rights of workers to organise freely must be at the core of progressive demands for independence.

Without the ability to relate to mass movements, be they in Greece, Egypt, Wall Street or Millbank, the trade unions will continue to suffer from their defeats. Without a ‘win’ they will suffer further inertia. Yes, the anti-union laws have meant that the trade unions have had to tread a thin line. But it’s time to stop dancing to the tune of the government and start dancing to the tune of the next, politicised, generation.