Whatever happened to trade unions?


I remember the days when trade unions had the power to switch out the lights across the UK, bring the country to a standstill and bring the government to its knees. The trade unions were the power behind a Labour government and the thorn in the side of a Conservative government.  They hit the headlines day in and day out.  Little happened in politics or business without consultation with the unions and, often, their blessing.

So, what happened? Why do trade unions feel so irrelevant today?  Do they have any role to play or should they bow out gracefully?

A friend who seems to have avoided any right-ward political drift with age assures me that trade unions do, indeed, have an important role to play. But tackling pay and conditions in 2016 means drawing attention to loss of pension benefits and, less obviously, evidence of reduced life expectancy where the retirement age is extended.  (And this is in professional jobs, not manual labour – not a point I was aware of.)

Others have pointed out that trade unions have traditionally served to represent workers in their dealings with employees and that increased numbers of self-employed workers have no obvious trade union home. I struggle to get my head round a trade union for the self-employed – too much like herding cats – but a wise person pointed out that zero-hours workers could do with someone fighting their corner.

In a similar way to pensions being the new battleground, what can be done to help those who are caring for parents, other family members or friends? Will caring be something that people should have the right to do, without having to squeeze that – and the associated travel, phone calls in working hours and the like – into spare time?  What other issues are people facing – or starting to face – that require a concerted response?  Will a national minimum wage (however expressed) result in more pressure on employees to fit around an employer’s requirements, potentially curtailing flexibility that some staff might need?  Where should the balance sit between the rights of employers and employee rights?

In the context of these new and emerging issues, what role can trade unions play? Surely they have experience of lobbying and skill sets – beyond calling strikes – that can help to represent workers and issues relevant to them.

These feel like old-fashioned concepts, but I sense a need for something like them. That said, trade unions will have to evolve to suit their new target audience, one that associates unions with strikes, messed-up public transport, closed schools and cancelled medical appointments – if they’ve heard of trade unions at all.

But let’s not get too caught up with labels. Perhaps it doesn’t matter what organisations are called, as long as they do what’s needed.  And I’m increasingly wondering whether an organisation that speaks for workers – whether or not that’s labelled a “trade union” – might have a role to play.

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