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Time for Change – Is the Trades Union Movement Stuck in the Past?

Kevan James

June 29, 2022.

Above - those of more mature years may recognise some faces familiar in the 1970s.

There is, it would appear, a wave of strike action about to hit the UK. First the Rail and Maritime union (the RMT) held a ballot of its members and the result was the current series of strikes now affecting rail travel. Then along came a raft of other unions, all doing the same thing – and all demanding the same thing; higher pay, better working conditions and terms of employment.

The phrase ‘Winter of Discontent’ has been used on a regular basis to describe the prospect of concerted union action in calling strikes but not since the 1970s has there been such a prediction as now. Not least of course because of the time of year. Whatever else it may be, it is not winter. Thus the term has been altered slightly to reflect the fact that it is indeed, summer.

But a series of strikes by a number of unions begs a number of questions. Firstly, why now? We’ll come back to that. A second may be a little less obvious; just how effective will strikes be, given that union membership is at an all-time low? That depends largely on who is striking. Action in one area will have less effect than action in another. Indeed, it is entirely possible that some industries could see strikes occur but nobody noticing.

At present just under a quarter (23.5%) of UK employees are union members, although union density is much higher in the public sector (52%) than the private sector (13%), and as the graph below indicates, union membership has fallen consistently.

One of the reasons for the decline in membership was the outlawing of the ‘closed shop’. Those with long memories will no doubt recall it but for those who may not know, the closed shop was the mandatory membership of a union for people who worked in any unionised company, public or private. Put another way, you had to join whether you wanted to or not and if the union said you were going on strike, you went on strike. Again, whether you wanted to or not. You weren’t asked; there was no ballot; you simply did what the union told you to do. Or not do, as the case may be.

The change in law to end the closed shop was the result of union power – a time when unions regularly brought the country to a halt with strike after strike. This culminated in that phrase already mentioned, the ‘Winter of Discontent’, when the dead went unburied, bins weren’t emptied and piles of rotting rubbish scoured the streets in the winter of 1978-1979.

Not surprisingly most people became rather fed up with it all, so welcomed the change, union membership dropped and has continued to drop ever since. Not only that, but the winter of discontent and the disruption caused by union strike action happened under a Labour government – not a Conservative one.

The Winter of Discontent - 1978/1979

Mirrorpix via the internet

Things have of course, changed immeasurably in the 43 years since then Prime Minister James Callaghan lost the general election of 1979 to Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives and it was 18 years before Labour returned to power with Tony Blair leading the party in 1997. And one of those changes is one that unions have resisted as much as they can, mostly rather ineffectively.

The way we work is not what it used to be. To run any business today does not mean employing large numbers any more. Whereas one might once have needed 10,000 employees, today one needs only 500 to do the same things, thanks to the advances in technology (not least computers and the internet). Yet union leaders still carry on as they always have; talking of ‘defending and protecting jobs’ and so on.

One almost hates to say this but it is no longer possible to ‘defend and protect jobs’ anymore - and certainly not by going on strike. A similar point can be made over working conditions; this is another old argument that, while it does have considerable merit, isn’t going to apply to the increasing numbers now working from home. Conditions there are more likely to depend on what kind of home one has as much as anything.

The world however, has changed and the union movement needs to change with it.

Today’s unions need to be less about confronting management with a set of demands and calling a strike. Today’s unions need to be more about re-training, creating new opportunities and new jobs to replace the old. Today’s unions need to be a part of running business, of future planning and of assisting positively with managing the inevitable changes that will happen.

Yes, unions can point out that pay needs to reflect what it costs to merely stay alive. But once again, striking over pay (by itself and of itself) is an outdated concept that has had its day.

We all know that the price of food continues to rise; we all know that the cost of putting a roof over one’s head and having a home went beyond reason years ago – but what can unions do to help with bringing prices down?

Wanting a Labour government isn’t going to be of any use there and merely because the Labour party is in power isn’t going to stop unions calling strikes either – as we saw in 1978/1979 and again with the Fire Service strike in 2002/2003, when Labour were indeed in power.

On that particular point one has to ask whether or not the current threats over strikes has more to do with union leadership wanting to bring down a Tory government rather than anything else. The answer is most certainly yes, despite RMT leader Mick Lynch suggesting otherwise in a recent interview. Waves of strikes now and a summer of discontent, which, coming back to the earlier question of why now, is aimed at bringing down the Tories, nothing else.

The unions in the UK can certainly campaign for a Labour government – after all the party grew out of the union movement in 1900; it’s their party. But in more general terms, unions need to lose the politics and spend their time actually helping their members in more ways, and less obvious ways, than they have in the past.

© Kevan James 2022

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