The photo is of an Amazon distribution centre by Ralph Freso/Reuters via the Observer.
This essay, on the crisis facing trade unions, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Roseanne and that tweet.) It was published in the Observer, 3 June 2018, under the headline ‘Unions are too vital to democracy to be allowed to gentrify and die’.
Two reports last week exposed both the changing character of the labour market and the degree to which the power of the organised working class has eroded.
The Office for National Statistics revealed that there were just 79 strikes (or, more specifically, stoppages) last year, the lowest figure since records began in 1891. Just 33,000 workers were involved in labour disputes, the lowest number since 1893. Victorian conditions have returned in more ways than one.
It’s not just the number of strikes that has fallen. Trade union membership has too. The latest figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy show that just 23.2% of employees were unionised in 2017, a half that of the late 1970s.
The fall has been greatest among the young. The proportion of union members under 50 has fallen over the past 20 years, while that above 50 has increased.
Strikingly, too, unions have increasingly become clubs for professionals. One in five employees works in professional jobs, but they make up almost 40% of union members. These days, you are twice as likely to be unionised if you have a degree than if you have no qualifications. It’s a far cry from the old image of the trade unionist as an industrial worker. Unions have not just shrunk – their very character has changed. Like politics, trade unionism has become more professional and technocratic.
The evisceration of the meaning of trade unionism was perhaps best expressed in a series of bizarre events at the annual congress of the University and College Union. The UCU has been involved in recent months in a bitter dispute with universities over pension rights. Many members have been critical of the handling of the dispute by the union’s leadership and, in particular, by the general secretary, Sally Hunt. At the congress were two motions, one censuring Hunt for her actions during the strike, the other calling for her resignation. The UCU leadership walked out before the motions could be heard and shut down the congress on the grounds that the motions undermined their rights as union members (UCU full-timers are members not of the UCU but of Unite) and because of ‘concerns about their health and safety’. Union leaders refused, in other words, to be held accountable by the members who had originally voted them into office on the grounds that such accountability is contrary to their interests as union members and detrimental to their health and safety.
There is, of course, a long history of union leaders protecting their own positions and acting against the wishes of their members. But many of today’s unions seem disinclined to pay even lip service to the idea of unions as organisations of solidarity, belonging to their members and working on behalf of their interests.
While some union leaders are inventing ‘health and safety’ reasons for refusing to be held accountable by their members, workers facing real health and safety concerns often have little support. Almost a third of British workers comprise what the economist Guy Standing has called the ‘precariat’ – workers lacking job security and benefits, often shifting from one short-term position to another, often self-employed or working in the gig economy.
An investigation published last week by the GMB discovered that ambulances had been called to Amazon’s UK warehouses at least 600 times in the last three years – more than four times every week. On more than half of these occasions, patients had to be taken to hospital. According to the GMB’s national officer, Mick Rix: ‘Pregnant women [are] telling us they are forced to stand for 10 hours a day, pick, stow, stretch and bend, pull heavy carts and walk miles – even miscarriages and pregnancy issues at work.’
Not only have unions been drained of much of their power, but the workers that most need help are the least likely to be organised. The very character of the new, fragmented labour market makes organisation more difficult. The state of traditional trade unionism only compounds the problem.
Much has been written about the crisis of social democratic parties throughout Europe that have abandoned their old working-class constituencies and as a result have largely imploded. Much less thought has been given to similar trends within traditional trade unionism.Yet, the crisis of trade unionism is as great as that of social democratic politics. The two are inextricably linked. To address the crisis of working-class politics, we need to address questions of working-class organisation and solidarity, too.