I love trade unions. I really do. I’m sure we’ve all heard the clichés: we have unions to thank for weekends, working time restrictions, maternity leave, sick pay and the minimum wage. They’re clichés because they’re true.
I’m a rep for my union branch, and it’s one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done. I’ve helped win concessions from employers, defended my colleagues when they’ve been in trouble and made some great friends along the way.
I love trade unions. You could go as far as to say that I ‘heart’ them, if you really wanted to.
This week is HeartUnions Week. It’s a week to celebrate the successes of trade unions (of which there are many) and encourage everyone to join one (which you definitely should).
If we really heart unions, then we need to be honest with ourselves on where they need to improve. If you like someone, you might shrug your shoulders and let them make their mistakes on their own time. But if you love someone, you would do everything you can to help them be the best version of themselves they can be, even if that means having some tricky conversations. And as I say, I love trade unions.
Trade unions have been struggling since they hit their peak membership of 13.2 million in 1979, hitting a historic low of 6.23 million members in 2016. We have Margaret Thatcher to thank, not only for her direct attack on the trade union movement that largely still stands in law today, but also for the huge changes in our economy she fostered.
The kind of work that trade unions were designed for has retreated to public sector fortresses like teaching and nursing. Gone are the days where you’d fall into a job in your teens and stick with it for the rest of your working life. Low-paid, more insecure work in the hospitality and service sectors are the norm. Retail now covers 9.3% of the workforce, second only to health as the UK’s largest industry. And bosses are exploiting innovations in technology to in turn exploit their workers, especially in cases like Uber and Deliveroo.
COVID-19 has made work more precarious than ever, meaning many of these people in retail can’t work as their sector has evaporated overnight. Brands like Debenhams and Topshop may have been saved – the jobs have not.
Sometimes the unions don’t help themselves either. Just recently we’ve seen headlines of unions facing allegations of bribery for expensive construction projects, engaging in long legal battles with Labour MPs, and withdrawing funds from the Labour Party for political reasons. It’s difficult to convince someone undecided on hearting unions when this is what’s cutting through.
Sexism is endemic in trade unions. After the GMB’s former General Secretary Tim Roache stood down in unclear circumstances last year, the union commissioned an investigation that found it was “institutionally sexist” in an absolutely damning report. Change has been promised but has not come anywhere near quick enough. Sexism is something for the whole union movement needs to reckon with. The first woman to be General Secretary of one of the “Big 3” trade unions was only elected this year, particularly shocking when you consider most trade unions members are women – making up 57% of the membership.
These issues ask existential questions of modern trade unions, and they have come up with few answers so far.
When we’re talking to our colleagues in the spirit of HeartUnions week about why they should be in a union, it’s easy to get misty-eyed and go off on one about solidarity and collective struggle. When that’s met with a raised eyebrow, you can start to describe them as a sort of “job insurance.” But this seems unnecessary when they have a good relationship with their boss, or it’s too expensive, or their union wasn’t there when they needed them before – so what’s the point?
We can’t build the union when all we have to offer are a few lofty ideas and a threat that you’ll need us eventually. At the risk of sounding like an overzealous training seminar leader, one answer is ABC: always be campaigning. It’s so much easier to make a compelling case for joining a union when you can tell your colleagues what you’re specifically fighting for to make things better, and that their £14 a month helps make that a reality.
We need to identify the problems that are really relevant – harassment and bullying, putting proper COVID precautious in place, or something as simple as making sure everyone gets paid on time – and then show what the union is doing to improve this. Even better if we can set a long term ambition for what we want our workplace to look like.
This isn’t to say we should let go of our role as caseworkers. Sometimes just being a friendly voice on the phone or in the room for a disciplinary can be the most radical thing you can do.
But I don’t want to make it easy for trade unionism to be dismissed when a case has been allowed to fall through the cracks by an overworked volunteer rep. It’s not their fault. The whole system needs rewritten with a focus on campaigning.
There’s a lot of exciting stuff going on. The ‘McStrike’ has made huge strides in unionising a casual and temporary workforce. The GMB’s fight for basic rights at Amazon warehouses and COVID protections at ASOS is leading unions out of their traditional comfort zone. In America, the Alphabet Workers Union at Google has broken into big tech, and now their international alliance with other trade unions representing Google workers is campaigning on specific issues like the casualisation of the workforce and nondisclosure agreements, that the company uses globally.
It’s not enough for trade unions to simply exist. Defending the rights we have can sometimes take all of our energy, but we need to go further. We, as trade unionists, do not have enough laurels to offer everyone space to rest on. It’s because I love trade unions that I see them for their flaws and still think they’re worth saving. I’ve enthusiastically celebrated Heart Unions week. The only way we can guarantee there are more HeartUnions Weeks in the future, is by fighting to make them better now.