New figures from the Labour Force Survey last week showed that UK trade unions lost over a quarter of a million members between 2015 and 2016. Behind the headline figure – the sharpest drop in union membership in over 20 years - lie some worrying trends. Private sector membership is down again but so is public sector density. Membership amongst women is falling faster than at any time since the survey was introduced and precarious workers are far less likely to be in a trade union than those in permanent and secure employment.
These numbers pose a serious threat to the future relevance and viability of trade unions across the UK. As work changes and people work differently, just engaging with this new generation of workers will become a real challenge. My organisation – Community – a relatively small private sector-facing trade union has been thinking creatively about how we can be more relevant to the future of work and the growing number of freelance workers in particular.
We’ve spent the last few months working on a new partnership with a coworking co-operative, IndyCube, taking the best bits of traditional trade unionism and making them relevant to modern, independent workers. This week, we launch that integrated membership offer that has three main components – affordable desk space, relevant trade union services for self-employed workers and an invoice paying service – which we believe will revolutionise support for independent workers.
The IndyCube business model has been based on affordability and flexibility. Our new partnership will allow that model to grow while providing a factoring service – where an invoicing company sits between the self-employed worker and their client and ensures payments are made on time. The final strand will build on the traditional trade union model of legal support but tailor it to the needs of self-employed workers such as providing professional legal advice or representation through the small claims court.
We are also aiming to establish over 1,000 new IndyCube spaces across the length and breadth of the UK over the next five years. Every IndyCube user will also be a member of Community with a distinct self-employed offer. Membership is available through an online platform which enables users to join indycube.community, rent desk space and access support and services.
This is a modern, innovative and scaleable project but it is also in the best traditions of the trade union and co-operative movement. It has the potential to make trade unions relevant to a new generation of workers and, importantly, to provide much needed collective voice for self-employed and freelance workers on the issues that matter to them
The figures released last week should worry everyone. Trade unions have been a force for good for over 150 years but have spent the last 10 to 15 of those looking in the rear-view mirror - trying to consolidate the wins of the past. If trade unions are to be around for the next 150 years then we need a new period of innovative thinking – one that learns from our history but provides solutions to the future of work.