Thousands marched in protest against austerity. But what is the future of the trade union movement? Photo: Getty

Rebooting the rank and file: why there's still hope for the unions

Britain's unions have been on the slide for 40 years. But with new campaigns and a left-wing Labour Party high in the polls, a fragile optimism is now stirring
October 9, 2017

Richard Williams has a story like many others in Britain’s post-crash economy. He’s a young self-described “creative” trying to make his way working for himself. Based in his native South Wales he talks with a quiet resolve about how he’s striving to build a business designing marketing material for housing companies.

His tale is, however, exceptional in one regard: he’s recently joined a trade union. Previously he had no links to the labour movement—“you could have put me down as highly sceptical,” he said. “Never thought I’d be a member.” Yet he found himself joining Community, the union that traditionally represented steel workers, when it teamed up with a social enterprise, IndyCube, who provide the shared office space in Cardiff that Williams uses. Members of IndyCube automatically join the union, and get free access to its legal and invoicing services. “I’m tiny, and I have to deal with large firms all the time—now they have to take me seriously,” he explained. “Ultimately, it’s about power.”

IndyCube is growing fast—its first London site will open soon—and aims to attract 100,000 members over the next five years. It’s a hybrid organisation: part office-space provider, part union, part co-operative. “We launched ourselves in Newtown, the home of the co-operative movement pioneer Robert Owen—and that was for a reason,” said founder Mark Hooper, nodding back to a 19th century in which, from the Tolpuddle martyrs to the London match girls, workers combined in different ways to see off the cruellest forms of exploitation. “We are supporting today’s independent workers to help each other out,” he added. This is just one example of how some unions, like Community, whose membership has long been falling, are finally seeking to reinvent themselves and renew their relevance for the 21st century.

Throughout the 20th century, whether you were friend or foe of organised labour, there was no doubting it mattered. Unions mobilised, and sometimes moderated, the power of workers. They secured better terms and conditions and often flexed their muscles through strikes, routine events in the British economy of the 1970s especially. As a result, they were often resented and not widely loved—“somewhere between necessary and a necessary evil” is the memorable line from historian David Kynaston’s book Modernity Britain. But they were, in those more egalitarian decades, an essential part of who we were.

As recently as 1983, only one worker in four had never joined a union. But if membership was once a norm to be complied with, then today—outside the public sector—to join up is to stand apart. The relevance, even survival, of the union movement can no longer be taken for granted. This story of decline over the last 40 years has multiple authors. The industrial shake out of the 1980s hammered the sectors where unions had been strongest. In parallel, Thatcher’s blizzard of laws constrained them, and then—gradually but remorselessly—work became more fragmented and individualised: through contracting-out, burgeoning part-time posts, rising self-employment and the growth of home-working. More recently, austerity has shrunk the state’s still heavily-unionised workforce, reducing membership further.

Unions themselves shouldn’t be exculpated. At crucial junctures—whether in shunning Harold Wilson’s white paper “In Place of Strife” or dividing over James Callaghan’s Bullock Commission on industrial democracy—they made the wrong call. They failed to prioritise expansion in the growing service sector to make up for the members lost in dying heavy industries. And they indulged in endless mergers, which can dilute the cohesion of the memberships, and make leaders more remote. In certain cases, too, there has been (and still is) a swaggering style of leadership that prioritised political positioning over workplace concerns.

Back in the 1970s, around half of all workers carried a union card. Today it is just 21 per cent, which drops to 13 per cent in the private sector, and to 6 per cent among young workers there. The immediate worry-list of the unions—a post-Brexit race to the bottom on employment rights, the prospect of perma-austerity, job-destroying robots—is a long one. But the slow-grind of demographics is at least as threatening. As the baby boomers edge into retirement, and millennials fail to sign up in anything like equal numbers, membership will fall further. On the current trajectory, today’s 21 per cent membership rate will dip to 17 per cent by 2030.

This age-imbalance reflects a wider point: unions are weakest where the need for them is greatest. If you are an over-50 public-sector professional, you are 20 times as likely to be in a union as a low-paid, under-30 in the private sector. To survive, never mind thrive, unions need to prove their worth to the millennial generation whose instincts on issues like pay and the welfare state tend to be more individualistic.

Yet against this unremittingly bleak backdrop, something unexpected is stirring—fragile optimism. In part, this is a natural reaction against the austerity-fatigued state of the nation. The seven-year squeeze on public-sector pay is now taking a toll on services such as schools and hospitals, bringing the concerns of parents and patients closer to those of unions. Meanwhile, the abundance of jobs in the UK has shifted the spotlight from unemployment to the low quality of much work.

There are also supportive intellectual currents blowing in from across the Atlantic, where some economists are increasingly enthusiastic about unions as a way to address the long squeeze on labour’s share of national income in the United States. That is an especially American phenomenon, but the discourse on inequality, of which it forms a part, has a wider relevance, and it has helped to win new advocates. When the Pope, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, International Monetary Fund and mainstream economic gurus such as Larry Summers all weigh in on the importance of unions, something is afoot.

For many union activists, a polarised political scene fuels the sense of potential. A left-wing Labour Party, running on the most unequivocally pro-union agenda in generations, is high in the polls. New analysis shows swathes of unionists returned to the Labour fold in June’s election. And the surge in party membership, after years of decline, makes some hope that other collective institutions, like unions, could eventually benefit.

Public opinion has gradually shifted, too, as the popular image of unions has become increasingly defanged. In the 1970s, four out of five people believed that unions wielded too much power, but today only one in three voters do. Swings in popular sentiment matter. If the Thatcherite reforms of the 1980s can in part be understood as a response to widely perceived union excess in the 1970s then, the argument goes, the next phase of politics may reflect a public reaction against the rise of aggressive employment practices that stoke insecurity and deny workers respect. A straw in the wind is the reaction to the strike over low pay and zero-hour contracts at McDonald’s. A low-budget video about the tiny handful of strikers has gone viral on Facebook and has been viewed a staggering four million times, including by a quarter of all the company’s staff.

All this lifts union morale. But most potent of all has been the surge in self-belief unions experience when they rediscover— however fleetingly—what it feels like to win.

*** Luke Primarolo is the East Midlands regional officer for Britain’s largest union, Unite, and he’s a busy man. For the last three years he has masterminded the shock and awe campaign against Sports Direct. It all started when a Unite member told him about a culture of fear at a giant Sports Direct warehouse in Derbyshire. A worker there had given birth in the toilets rather than take time off. Alarm bells rang, and a litany of allegations of abuse, exploitation and dire working conditions soon came to light. “At first it was hard to believe it could all be true—unfortunately it was,” he said.

The campaign had many elements. Documentaries were made, undercover journalists supported, shareholder groups lobbied, and the Catholic church was enlisted to help organise language lessons to those (mostly Polish) workers who struggled with English. There was direct action in Sports Direct’s shops in the UK and abroad, and protests at Premier League football matches. It is far from over, but it’s already clear that the campaign worked.

Naturally, Primarolo is emboldened to interpret this as a broader moment of possibility for unions. Beyond Unite’s success, he lauds Unison’s legal wins on employment tribunal fees and the GMB’s victory in the courts against Uber and Addison Lee’s practice of treating drivers as “independent contractors.” He could have added the sudden crumbling of the government’s 1 per cent public-sector pay cap, which is giving more unions a sense of the possible. “In the aftermath of the financial crisis workers were scared. The view was ‘try to hold on to what you’ve got,’” Primarolo explained, but “recently people have got fire in their belly, they’re ready to push for more.”

The unorthodox union that Jason Moyer-Lee leads, the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB), is minuscule compared to the might of Unite, but it too has tasted success. Its thousand or so members—cleaners, security guards, delivery couriers and foster carers—are overlooked and undervalued. But they’ve been drawn to the IWGB by its string of victories in the courts, its edgy direct action, and the close relationship it has forged with the mostly migrant workers it represents.

“The sky really is the limit,” effuses the youthful Moyer-Lee, in his box-sized office in Islington. “But the problem is money.” “All our cleaners are poor and exploited: they can’t pay high dues but have lots of problems so are expensive to support.” As a result, IWGB finds itself turning away some who would like to join its ranks, an unimaginable position for more established unions. “We just don’t have the case workers to support more cleaners at the moment.” They are looking at how they can fund expansion, and Moyer-Lee—who says he has been treated frostily by bigger unions, some of whose members have switched to IWBG—knows exactly the sectors he would like to target. “Fast food, hotel-cleaning, agricultural workers—there’s so much potential.”

This may be a Corbynite moment, but the labour movement still has its share of moderates. Take John Hannett of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), a seasoned voice of steady, consensual, unionism. Sustaining a union presence in retail, when shop staff turn over so rapidly, is no mean feat. Manchester-based USDAW have to recruit 70,000 members a year just to stand still. But, Hannett says, they’re exceeding that, growing by 100,000 over the last decade. The union negotiates pay with corporate giants like Tesco and Sainsbury’s and prides itself on professionalism. Listen to Hannett and you hear the language of “performance indicators,” “continuous improvement” and “focussing on results.” It is a far cry from the insurgent vernacular of the IWGB. Yet, in one regard, these contrasting leaders—voices of militancy and moderation—echo each other: there have been too many excuses in the union movement, they both say.

Even in a declining movement, with over six million members there will always be pockets of growth, making it hard to know whether this new mood of optimism is ephemeral—the rush of hope experienced by the goalscorer in a losing team—or something meaningful. It is, or should be, clear that it won’t be turned into anything durable unless unions face outwards and seek to innovate and reach new groups. That means overcoming challenges—some new, others as old as the movement itself.

Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the first congress of the TUC, a cue for celebrations of its crowning achievements. Missing from the script will be any mention of the inglorious events of the year before, in 1867, when its forerunner, the Alliance of Organised Trades, attempted to raise funds to support all those taking part in industrial disputes. It failed. Unions who thought they wouldn’t directly benefit refused to contribute, an early lesson in how hard it can be to rise to new challenges with solidarity.

This is familiar territory for Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the TUC since 2013. “We remain a big force but our resources are not always where they’re needed most. The Bakers’ Union has started a David and Goliath battle to organise young workers in McDonald’s. Imagine if… the rest of the movement backed them with an army of dedicated organisers—if we put our money where our mouth is. That isn’t a pipe dream. Teachers’ Unions in New Zealand sponsored private-sector unions to organise young workers… they cared about their students working in rubbish jobs and… they understood that their own strength depended on having strong trade unionism everywhere.”

Most unions have thus far managed only a flat-footed response to newer challenges, such as how to harness “big data” and digital technology. Push some leaders on this, and the desultory response you’ll get is that the members’ mag has moved online or that the email database is due for an upgrade.

Other groups are, however, moving fast. Michelle Miller is a founder of Co-worker, a digital campaigning outfit based in Washington DC. It resembles an agile internet start-up more than a traditional union, but its stated mission is “reinventing labour for the 21st-century worker.” In its few years, it has already scored high-profile victories against titans such as Netflix and Starbucks. It deploys a mix of media-savvy and online petitioning to push workers’ issues in places where traditional unions are never seen.

Miller has deep roots in the American labour movement but is unsparing about the difficulties of achieving change from within. Co-worker could “never have developed… within any of the big unions, which are bound by bureaucracies and politics.” She’s talking about the US but it will strike a chord with many in the UK. Here a new digital start-up, Organise Platform, is emulating the Co-worker approach (initially they were incubated by an outfit that receives support from Resolution Trust, the organisation I run). Only founded at the start of this year, it has already created waves. It made maternity rights an early focus, and identified ITV as an employer that could do more. Facebook ads were targeted at staff and, with support from the media union Bectu, 150 workers came forward willing to take their concerns to management. Soon after, ITV upgraded its maternity policy.

Whether it is the spark of IndyCube’s work with the self-employed, IWGB’s confrontational approach, or the zeal of a new generation of digital activists, there is energy flowing into the labour movement. What it will achieve remains entirely uncertain. Cynics, and unions aren’t short of them, see the fringe activities of a few here-today-gone-tomorrow, publicity-seeking campaigners and digital geeks. But enthusiasts see the hazy outlines of a strategy for reaching workers that have eluded unions for so long—the young, self-employed and acutely insecure.

*** The underlying conundrum concerns how much to concentrate on the traditional goals of recognition and collective bargaining in workplaces that seem more attainable, as opposed to trying to reach scattered workers in places where unions have never trod before. The temptation is to focus on the firms that unions know their way round. The risk, given shifts in the world of work, is that this reinforces the caricature that O’Grady is determined to counter, the idea that unions are just, as she puts it, “too 20th century: good for the NHS and big car plants, but not relevant… [in] many more workplaces where the traditional [union] model... feels... a world away.” Which is why, for her, “The answer” has to be to “invent new ways to organise… and have the bottle to take risks and experiment, even if it means we sometimes fail."

As a result the TUC is asking itself searching questions about what this means—especially, what it would take to appeal to the under-30s—and promises to set out substantive answers next year. There should be opportunities, too, at the other end of the age spectrum: the burgeoning number of older workers taking a lonely walk down a rocky road into retirement—mixing some down days with part-time shifts or freelancing.

And just as the 19th-century craft unions nurtured their own aristocracy of labour, so—with a bit of spark—it could be possible for new employee mutuals or “artisanal unions” to emerge in the digital age. Think of graduates working on the edges of the tech sector: IT contractors, web designers, programmers. They can earn decent money but often feel exposed because of insecure contracts. Airline pilots—such as those currently using WhatsApp to co-ordinate their battle with Ryanair—are another skilled but increasingly casualised group who might be newly receptive. It would be counter-cultural for many of these private-sector professionals to join a traditional union, but—as the IndyCube experiment suggests—with imagination it is possible to appeal to even the most fragmented parts of the workforce.

An enterprising labour movement would also be open to developing other, non-union forms of organisation to secure a better bargain for workers. Many of Britain’s worst-paid and least-secure workers rely on employment agencies, often getting a poor deal. Even with stronger employment rights agencies would still exist—the aim must be to make them better. There should be ample scope for co-operatives or social enterprises to move into the agency space, and distinguish themselves by offering decent pay and lower fees. They would, however, need backing.

The need here is especially pressing for that small but fast-growing chunk of the workforce which relies on Airbnb-style digital platforms to land their shifts. “Gig-workers” can face late and low payment and their reputation is beholden to particular sites that own the “customer reviews” which dictate who gets hired. Far-sighted unions in Germany are showing the way, by agitating for such platforms to be organised around worker-friendly principles. Nothing equivalent is happening here. It should.

Traditional unions will be tempted to dismiss such interests as niche. But technology is going to keep making it cheaper to match workers and jobs online, so the proportion of labour hired in this way is bound to expand. A labour movement with £1.3bn annual income, and the resources to make £30m of political donations since 2015, really ought to be able to make some investment in pro-worker institutions with the potential to grow. Some such investments will fail, of course, but the only certainty without innovation is that unions will retreat further into their public-sector island.

The balance of power between employers and labour has always mattered greatly—shaping pay and conditions, and determining who bears economic risk in our society. And that balance has steadily become more lopsided than at any point in modern times. The principled case for contemporary trade unionism is as strong as its practical position is weak. Recent wins have injected a welcome sense of self-belief, but haven’t reversed the underlying tides that have long pushed the labour movement backwards. They do, however, provide a promising moment for considering: where next?

No single strand of unionism provides the answer: what works for delivery couriers will be different to what’s needed for the steel workers of Port Talbot. Yes, face-to-face organising and collective bargaining will remain at the heart of trade unionism, but new approaches are desperately needed too—service industry workers who have hitherto felt little inclination to join are unlikely to change their mind if offered more of the same. Nor should union hopes rest completely on a change in government. Yes, punitive legal constraints—most egregiously the ban on online voting on ballots—clearly need reversing. But politicians didn’t create all of the unions’ problems, and they won’t solve them all either.

If a decline that has gone on for decades is to be halted, never mind reversed, then entirely new means of collectively empowering workers will have to be cultivated. And that won’t come easy to big, old, rule-bound institutions where there is often more attachment to the past than there is enthusiasm about the future.

Yet that same past contains clues as to what is required. A movement that says it has solidarity in its bones needs to show some by shifting resources to where they are most needed. A movement that arose out of a remarkable explosion of grass-roots civic innovation needs once again to back institutions that reflect today’s world of work. And a movement that has transformed countless working lives, not just through campaigns and demonstrations, but by putting its own resources directly to use, needs to invest in practical ways of helping people get on.

Pessimists will scoff. Unions, they will say, are too set in their ways, rivalries run too deep, caution is too entrenched. They may well be right. Those in the labour movement keen to prove the doubters wrong certainly have their work cut out. But they also have a moment of opportunity in which to act. They must seize it.

Now read Joseph E. Stiglitz on why Britain should opt for Corbyn's bold rethink over May's 80s rerun