Reversing the decline

The Government published its annual report on trade union membership this week.

The plain statistics don’t look good. Overall union density (the percentage of workers who are members of unions) fell again last year, from 28.3% to 28.0%. While there was a rise in the public sector of 0.3% to to 59.0%, in the private sector there was a decline of 0.5% to 16.1%. Equally worrying is that while the unionisation rate of the over-50s is 35.2%, that of the of the 18-24 band in work is only 9.8% rising to 22.3% for the 25-34 age band. It always used to be the young who were the driving force for unionisation, so unless young people become more involved, the future looks bleak.

We need to ask two questions – why the decline, and what can we do to reverse it?

Another blog, David Osler’s, has looked at the first question. David has come up with three reasons to explain the decline:

The first is that the labour movement frankly still has not recovered from the Thatcherite onslaught of the 1980s. The second is the fear of outsourcing, either to private companies or overseas. The third is the continuing effect of the anti-union laws.

I could add another reason. In the private sector, the decline of those areas of the economy, mining, steel, manufacturing, that were traditionally the most heavily unionised.

The trouble with all these reasons is that they don’t enable us to answer the second question – what we can do. These reasons are all outside our trade union movement, and therefore seem to leave us powerless to reverse the decline.

I don’t believe that these reasons are sufficient in themselves.

‘We haven’t recovered from the Thatcherite onslaught’. What does this mean? The younger workers – those with the lowest density of trade union membership – never faced Thatcher. What we do have is a legacy of Thatcherite ideas. These were most forcefully propagated in recent years by the Blair Government, and now by Brown. It’s not for nothing that Brown has announced that Thatcher will have a State Funeral (a ‘privilege’ only accorded to Disraeli and Churchill in the past).

There is nothing inevitable about the continuation of Thacherite ideas. They were discredited under the Major Government, and by rights should long since be dead and buried. Thatcherism was resurrected by New Labour. Just look at Labour’s current attacks on welfare, for a clear example.

The ‘fear of outsourcing’ argument implies that all management have to do is to raise the spectre and suddenly everyone will feel powerless. It’s not automatic. That’s why there are union struggles against outsourcing, sometimes successful. The campaign to bring hospital cleaning back in-house demonstrates that trade unionists are prepared to fight over the issue. I don’t believe health workers conclude, just because Darzi has come out with a report, that we all have to accept the outsourcing of provider services from the NHS.

The third reason is the anti-union laws. To a large extent these are accepted in practice by the union leaderships, who then enforce them on their members. Again, though, nothing is inevitable. There would be no unions if anti-union laws had not been broken in the past. Ted Heath’s anti-union laws in the 1970s were defeated by concerted ‘unlawful’ action. And more recently, the victory of the Shell tanker drivers seems to have been due to the willingness of Unite to push the laws to the limit.

Even the decline in the ‘old industries’ is not an adequate explanation for trade union decline. There have been continuing patterns of change in employment in Britain – and therefore in patterns of unionisation. There were virtually no white-collar trade unionists until the 1960s – now no one finds it surprising that offices and call centres are unionised.

There’s something else going on. I think the key reason that union membership has declined is simply that many people don’t believe trade unions are doing their job properly.

The decline started under the Labour Government in the 1970s, when the union leaderships forced through wage controls in the face of rampant inflation – to support ‘their’ Government. Then the union leaders complained about Thatcher, but did not confront her in the same way the unions had confronted Heath. And now we see the obscene picture of unions providing over 90% of the funding to the Labour Party – bank rolling a Government that imposes pay cuts, privatisation, and attacks on welfare, while Brown courts the CBI. It isn’t surprising that young people feel cynical about trade unions. It’s not that they are in some way reactionary or don’t care about politics. Look at the hundreds of thousands of young people who have been on anti-war marches, have been involved in anti-poverty campaigns, are fighting to protect the environment. Why on earth should these people share a political priority of propping up Brown?

Trade unions should be the natural home for radicalised young people – but to make that happen, it’s essential to change the political outlook of our union leaderships. Union leaders have to be concerned with the political issues that real people care about – and that means breaking with subservience to a neo-liberal Labour Party. These wider political issues go hand in hand, of course, with defending our members on bread and butter issues.

It’s no accident that union density in the public sector has gone up over the last year. The fights by public sector unions against the pay cuts imposed by the Government, the strikes, lobbies, and demonstrations, have led to people joining the relevant unions. We’ve seen that recently in Unite where the refusal to accept the NHS pay deal has led to people wanting to join the union. The victory at Shell enhanced our reputation massively.

But it’s when we combine politics with trade unionism that it’s possible to get a glimpse of the real potential. We can reverse the decline on the ground. My partner was on the Argos picket line in Basildon yesterday. He came back inspired. The dispute is about pay, but that’s not the whole story. The fact they have a solid organisation is because they understood the need to do more than simply talk about pay and conditions.

They have been organising the union there for 9 years. The deputy senior steward is the only woman in her section – but is a well-respected trade unionist. Fighting sexism has been central to building the union. Union members have also challenged racism.

When management brought in a lot of Polish agency staff, the union made sure they were recruited and organised. The learning reps ensured there were ESOL classes. Union members broke the strength of the gangmasters by organising alternative housing in the community for the Polish workers. Union literature is put out in Polish. Polish workers could have been used to undermine the union. Instead, union organisation is far stronger.

This is in Basildon, Essex – the home of Thatcher’s Essex man. If this sort of organisation can be built there, there is nowhere in the country it can’t happen. It requires a vision of what is possible and what is necessary. The stewards and activists in Basildon have that vision. We need to replicate their experience everywhere.

As they said on the picket line yesterday – they’ve already won just through the solidarity of the strike.

The growth of union organisation in Basildon might not make it on to the statistical radar, but it helps answer a lot of questions.


2 Responses to Reversing the decline

  1. Paul says:


    You can read the TUC’s response to the LFS figures here:

    I agree with your point that we need to ‘…answer the second question – what we can do’. We know there are lots of external factors which impact upon union membership, but we also know that there are things that unions can do that make a difference as well. UNITE has I know made big steps forward on the organising front, as have a number of other unions, but there is more we can do.

    Nearly half of non-union workers in non-unionised workplaces say they would join a union if there was one in their workplace, but when you ask them if they think the union would actually make a difference in the workplace, this falls to 1 in 10 workers. Its at a local level where we need to put in more investment – supporting stewards and reps, trying to get more members active and involved in the union, and building strong workplace organisation. Its a (sad) fact that in around a quarter of unionised workplaces we have NO rep, and that where we do have reps they are often the only rep in their workplace. If you take it as a given that for most union members (and potential members) the local rep is THE face of the unions, you can see whey we have a problem. The other worrying point is that the number of workplaces with an on-site rep is declining, and fragmentation (and in the case of the public sector, privatisation and outsourcing) is having a real impact on workplace organisation and bargaining arrangements.

    In unionised workplaces there are 3m non-members – 2m of whom say they have never been asked to join the union!

    We have a number of events coming up over the next few months looking at all these issues and more – would be good if you could join in the debate!

  2. sheerdebacle says:

    What about a 4th reason…?

    As mother to two 20-somethings, I can tell you that they are SO disgusted with NuLabour that anything to do with socialism, ‘the workers’, solidarity, ‘ageing hippy’ strikers draws vitriolic howls of derision in our house.

    A 5th reason…?
    NuLabour has so liberalised drinking times and so encouraged the ‘leeshure’ culture that many young people are either soma’d out of it/off their faces or they’re too dumbed down to think of anyone or anything but themselves and their next fix of whatever.

    A 6th reason….?
    My children, at least, are so appalled and fed up with the way their mother has been abused by public service workers (59% union penetration) that there is no way they or their mates would align themselves with such.(BTW, I’m not the only person IN MY LITTLE STREET) to have been almost killed by public service workers. Indeed, one of my neighbours was killed by some sort of what used to be called a work-to-rule.)

    Please try to see beyond the ‘easy’ reasons politicos comfort themselves with. These mean that unions don’t have to actually examine themselves/the actual quality of service delivery, it means that they don’t actuall have to DO anything….


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