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How do trade unions respond to the post-Covid economy?

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  • Picture of Andrew Pakes FRSA
    Andrew Pakes FRSA
  • Economic democracy
  • Future of Work
  • Employment

It may not have been the most significant government data release of the year, or even the day, but last month’s publication of the 2019 trade union membership statistics was loaded with meaning for anyone with an interest in the future of our economy and of work in Britain.

The headline was positive; a rise of 91,000 members is not to be sniffed at. But as ever, context is king. The context here is unforgiving.

Trade union membership has halved since 1979; even with a modest uptick last year density in the private sector is just 13.3 percent – an increase of just 0.1 per cent on the 13.2 per cent of 2018. More worryingly, we need to double recruitment of members aged under 35 just to replace the upcoming demographic retirement of baby boomer members.

This should matter to all of us. The decline in worker voice and bargaining power has resulted in a labour market where employers call the shots and employees by and large take what they are given.

We need stronger trade unions to create a fairer post-Covid economy. How can we create them?

If we want a fairer economy after Covid, we need a new settlement on worker voice

Plot the union membership numbers on a graph and you will find that they directly mirror the percentage of income taken home by the top 1% of earners- as one goes down, the other goes up. On a micro level, the absence of effective workplace voice matter to every woman who has faced sexual harassment at work, every zero-hours worker who can’t get the shifts to feed their kids, every employee who wants to challenge unethical behaviour but who can’t find a way to be heard. As Matthew Taylor has argued, we have lost our focus on good work.

If we want a future of work in Britain that provides more security and fulfilment, then we need to find ways to renew British trade unionism and get worker voice back on the agenda. This point is powerfully made by the RSA in this new report which argues that “the lack of widespread union membership feels more and more like a systemic brake upon good work for all”.

The question is how. Covid-19 has shown change can happen. The hallmark of the government’s response to the economic dimension of the pandemic has been the involvement of both business and unions as active participants on issues such as the Job Retention Scheme.

Social partnership is business-as-usual in our better performing economic neighbours such as Germany and Scandinavia, but here it has taken an unprecedented crisis for the Government to realise its value and it takes some optimism to conclude it will continue as we move to the transition and recovery phases.

If we want a new economic settlement coming out of this crisis, we also need a new settlement on good work and worker voice. That necessarily means we need change from the top with recognition in government that workers have a right to a say in economic and industrial policy. Legislative straightjackets placed around unions in Britain must be lifted. The ban on online balloting is particularly egregious, as are draconian rules on accessing workplaces.

Unions must innovate for the future

But removing these shackles will not in itself lead to the promised land. Nor should unions and their allies pin their hopes on grand legislative solutions, such as the creation of new sectoral bargaining structures or auto-enrolment into unions. Unions needs to be innovators of their own future.

For all of the weaknesses with our current economic model, the reason that workers in the private sector have not joined a union is not primarily the inaction of government; it is that not enough workers see their value or relevance. The only people who can solve this are the trade union movement.

This isn’t really a critique on what unions do, it is more a conversation about how they do things.

For a younger generation growing up as digital natives, too much of what unions do feels like it belongs in the twentieth century.  And if we face a new economic future where more workers are based at home, or working remotely, what does that mean for traditional workplace organising models? While there is progress being made, it is piecemeal and not on the scale required to reverse the overall trend.

The RSA rightly identify money as a key limiting factor here. Unions are working furiously to support current members and recruit where they can, but often this means that the kind of innovation that could be a game-changer is neglected. That isn’t to say that no innovation is happening. At Prospect we have recently launched a new brand with dramatically different messaging, and we are working with UNI global union on new worker tech that can help utilise data generated by workers in negotiations. We continue to buck the trend with growth in our self-employed and freelance members, particularly in our Bectu sector in the creative industries. Many other unions can point to similar highpoints.

Creating a modernised trade union

So, what would a modernised trade union look like? I won’t pretend to have all the answers, but things we should be experimenting with include:

  • Truly first-class digital communication and membership systems, rivalling the best practice from the charity and NGO sectors
  • An adaptive, evidence-based, data-driven approach to learning what works in what context when it comes to recruiting, retaining, organising, and activating members
  • More decentralised engagement structures- allowing members to form a more connected community within and across unions
  • Investment funds to support the organisation of innovation projects in areas with low union membership
  • Portals to link members to new opportunities such as training, salary information and career opportunities, as well as the provision of a greater range of services delivered directly by the union
  • Developing tools to allow union members to harness the power of their own and collective data in support of their own careers
  • Developing the TUC as an innovation hub for UK unions providing digital, technical and organisational support to help unions grow

None of this is going to change overnight.

But if we are serious about building a fairer world of work after this pandemic, then we need a corresponding strategy for the reinvention of trade unions. Change is hard, but it is also necessary for the survival of the movement and the eternal truth that it embodies. Unions exist to help people get on at work, and create better lives for themselves. That demand still exists and is set to intensify as the economic consequences of the pandemic sweeps over us.


Andrew Pakes is an RSA Fellow and the Director of Communications & Research at Prospect Union. He tweets @andrew4mk


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