George Binette

The state of the unions

George Binette
The state of the unions

AS MAY DREW to a close, two government departments, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (DBEIS), published separate reports on strike figures and trade union membership for 2017. Combined these make for sobering reading, whatever their limitations. Both reports shatter any illusions that Jeremy Corbyn’s resounding victories in Labour leadership contests would suddenly translate into a revival of trade union fortunes and resurgent militancy. Ironically, the publications coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and underscore the grave dangers confronting an organisation that appears to be in long-term decline.

The ONS report indicates that in 2017 the number of workers engaged in strike action (“work stoppages”) fell to its lowest level since the start of official records in the 1890s. With approximately 33,000 workers taking strike action, 2017 became just the fourth year in nearly 125 that fewer than 100,000 workers withdrew their labour, though it was also the second year in the past three.

The overall number of days ‘lost’ to employers through action was not, however, an all-time low. At 276,000, the total was the sixth lowest since 1891 and stands in stark contrast, not only to the latter stages of the 1970s, but also the early 1960s. Remarkably, the combined tally from 14 days of action by up to 40,000 UCU members across more than 60 university campuses in the late winter and early spring may have already eclipsed the total for 2017.

The DBEIS report on union membership makes for similarly discouraging reading. The total of trade union members for 2017 stood at around 6.2 million (compared to nearly 13 million in 1979), but there was, in fact, a very modest increase of 19,000 compared to 2016. Nonetheless, union density within the nation’s workforce fell once again, to just 23.2%, continuing a more or less constant downward trend from 32.4% since the mid-1990s.

Notably, the small rise in overall union membership stemmed entirely from growth in private sector workplaces. In contrast, the public sector, the supposed bastion of trade union strength, saw not just a fall of some 51,000, but also a drop in density to 51.8% of the workforce. Multiple factors explain this slump, but it looks likely that members are leaving unions in ostensibly organised workplaces. The report also highlights unions’ failure to make inroads among young workers. The demographic profile of trade unionists continues to age with nearly two in five union members over 50, while less than 29% of the workforce is aged 50 or older. Such data go some way towards explaining the erosion/ stagnation of real wages and the mounting inequalities of income and wealth.

Of course, these reports convey illuminating statistical data, but precious little context. For example, a compilation of simple numbers cannot capture the symbolic significance of short, smallscale walkouts at the likes of McDonald’s or the current action over the distribution of tips at TGI Friday’s, which gain quite widespread media coverage. So there are real beacons of hope.

In addition, the ONS report can’t assess the impact of the Tories’ Trade Union Act 2016 with its draconian requirements for participation in strike ballots. Such legislation has posed fundamental questions for national union leaderships since the ballot thresholds took effect last spring and the responses have certainly varied.

On the one hand the CWU built a substantial campaign around ‘four pillars’ for its membership in the recently privatised Royal Mail. Using a combination of social media and old-fashioned mass meetings at sorting office gates, the union secured an 89% Yes vote on a 73% turnout among more than 100,000 members. While there was ultimately no strike, there’s little doubt that CWU negotiators used the ballot result as an effective bargaining chip to extract a better deal from Royal Mail bosses. A recent ballot of West Midlands FBU members again showed that it’s more than possible to surmount the Tory-imposed hurdle. Meanwhile, at its recent conference the PCS committed to balloting members over five weeks from 18th June over its demand for a 5% rise for its civil service membership. In sharp contrast, the three officially recognised local government unions, led by Unison, have swallowed another below inflation deal for the vast majority of council employees covered by the National Joint Council (NJC) bargaining framework. The Unison NJC committee had recommended rejection of the 2% offer, but after a desultory campaign, which highlighted both regional divisions and organisational weakness, members voted narrowly to reject on a low turnout. The committee then reversed its original position and so most local government workers face another cut in real pay.

In a Guardian interview marking the TUC’s 150th anniversary, general secretary Frances O’Grady recognised the parlous state of trade unionism and praised the young workers involved in campaigns at McDonald’s, TGI Fridays and Picturehouse cinemas. She spoke of unions needing to “change or die”, while suggesting the need for a “civil rights movement for young people” midst figures demonstrating a yawning pay gap between generations.

So, what is the TUC’s ‘big idea’ to address this crisis? A digital app! The world of work has indeed changed, with new technology an undeniable driver, but shockingly there was no mention of investment in recruitment and organising, much less reflection on how years of defeat and retreat have shaped young workers’ perceptions of unions.

Crucially, “the future is unwritten” (in the words of Joe Strummer) for trade unionism and the responsibility for writing its future rests both with young workers not yet organised and those over 50 who remain union members. Both nationally and at constituency level the Labour Party should be discussing how it can assist unions, especially its affiliates, in recruitment drives and transforming the party into a port of call for solidarity when workers organise and fight back.


Chair of Camden Trades Council and trade union co-ordinator, Hackney North CLP