Trade unions: needed as much as ever

There is little to be said for the strike stopping some customers getting their Christmas presents in the post, nor the ones threatened by British Airways cabin staff and baggage handlers at many of the UK’s airports that threaten long-planned festive breaks, nor for the long-running dispute that is making the lives of commuters in parts of south-east England so miserable. But they are not the start of a wild-eyed workers’ insurgency, as some overexcited reports have suggested in the past few days. Nor, whether or not they achieve their legitimate aim of protecting their members’ interests, are they helping the wider trade union movement to find a new relevance and authority as membership declines in a rapidly changing economy.

There will possibly be a third more days lost to strikes in 2016 than in 2015. But last year was exceptionally peaceful on the industrial front, the most peaceful since 2005. The total of lost days for 2016 is still historically low. The point of this unnecessary row is that in some quarters, although it would seem not in Downing Street, there is still an appetite for more union-bashing laws. Some backbenchers hanker after the ultimate objective of the anti-union right since the Trade Disputes Act of 1906 reversed the Taff Vale judgment, removing trade union immunity from damages – thus effectively making industrial action impossible. This is daft on every front, not least because there would be no majority for it in parliament; the government was forced to make serial concessions on the trade union act, which is due to come into force next March. It already significantly narrows the possibilities of a strike by requiring not only a majority in favour of strike action, but a turnout of at least 50% of those entitled to vote. If parliament approves more regulations next month, it will also ban strike action in “important public services”, including the railways, unless it is backed by more than 40% of those entitled to vote.

What workers need is not more legislation to curb trade unions, but a trade union movement that is modern and responsive to the needs of the world where most people work. Trade union members tend to be older, better off and work in the old public sector. In the private sector, union membership is below 15%. If unions can’t find a way to reach younger workers to whom the tradition of collective action is unfamiliar, they are doomed to a slow death. Half of all jobs growth is among the self-employed. This is an audience that is deterred rather than attracted by old white men sounding antagonistic towards their employers.

Last year the union Community, which has set out to recruit self-employed people as well as a wide range of other workers, conducted research that found, if offered help by a trade union, a mere 19% would sign up. Offered similar help from an independent source, 75% would take up the offer. The union’s latest project is with Indycube, an organisation that sets up co-work spaces in redundant offices. Community wants to offer the self-employed not traditional union services but advice on contracts or slow payers. Others look across the Atlantic to movements like the minimum wage campaign Fight for $15, which began with a trade unionist, David Rolf, and has become a nationwide social movement organising for decent pay in sectors like fast food and social care. Workers need a strong, clear voice as much now as they ever had.

The author: Michel DEURINCK

Michel Deurinck, born in Brussels in 1950, started his career in the Belgian civil service, dedicating over 30 years to public service. Upon retirement, he pursued his passion for journalism. Transitioning into this new field, he quickly gained recognition for his insightful reporting on politics and culture. Deurinck's balanced and thoughtful approach to journalism has made him a respected figure in Belgian media.

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