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 stirringby Gavin Kelly / October 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.