Published in September 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Taylor Swift managed, in a single blog post, to secure what artists’ guilds have struggled to do: achieve a sharp improvement in the royalties paid by streaming services, which offer people a vast choice of music for a set fee each month, and pay the owners of the rights in proportion to the popularity of their work. All the same, guilds and unions representing “creative content” have been more adept than many traditional unions at adapting to the digital age. True, they have been wrong footed by the collapse of traditional sources of revenue, which has undermined their bargaining power. Roy Greenslade, Guardian columnist and media commentator, notably resigned from the National Union of Journalists in 2007 over its tin-ear to the cyber age, as it doggedly tried to defend categories of jobs that needed to disappear if media themselves were to survive. But the creative guilds at least have the advantage that there is a clearly defined product, even if it is now delivered digitally.
Other unions have coped less well with the revolution in the world of work that the digital age has brought. The “sharing economy,” in which people rent out their services (as drivers), their equipment (drills and cars), their houses, has caught them out. So have portfolio careers, in which people may work for four or five organisations. So has self-employment past the normal retirement age. Philip Collins cites the case of the GMB union, which represents professional drivers, taking Uber to court over its determination to describe its taxi drivers as partners not workers. Some Uber drivers may welcome that; some may not, appreciating (as Uber claims) the freedom of self-employment. Some might suspect that the GMB’s action (although taken on behalf of particular Uber drivers who approached it) has in mind too the protection of its traditional members, professional drivers, from the upstart service undercutting established taxis.
The unions’ reaction to the changes that technology, globalisation and demographics have brought has too often been to say that they should not happen. It would be better to recognise that they are happening and that they sometimes bring benefits. It is hardly a bad thing that people find ways to work later in life as the population ages and pension schemes are strained.