On the 12th September the Trades Union Congress passed Composite 16, named ‘Increasing membership in the private sector and mobilising for a New Deal for all workers’. One of the most eye-catching parts of this composite was the emphasis placed on trying to reconnect the trade union movement with communities. The need for this is obvious, membership of trade unions in the UK has risen for the fourth year in a row, but behind the headlines lies a significant fall in private sector trade union membership. Just 13% of private sector workers are in a union compared to 50% in the public sector.

When presenting the composite at the National Shop Stewards Network, Dave Ward, whose Communication Workers Union is planning a national rally in 2022, stated that trade union  movement should be:  

“Putting forward a strategy that talks about town hall meetings, going to some red wall seats… standing there and telling them how we’re going to mobilise working people.”

The principles underpinning the idea are laudable, trade unions should be in touch with and reflect the concerns of workers and communities, and with CWU Live, the CWU has shown that it can be successfully inventive for reaching new audiences. If the ambitions of this motion were realised it would greatly increase the organising capability of the trade union movement to interact with constituents in seats that the political arm of the Labour Movement, the Labour Party, will be targeting to win at the next election. 

Ward also claimed that: “The Labour Party have not really got the wherewithal to stand up for working people” and, consequently, trade unions “cannot wait for political change in this country at the next general election”. 

It is true that trade unions cannot afford to wait for a Labour government (at this rate Godot might arrive sooner) and being able to establish organised labour as part of the social fabric is important. However, it is questionable whether organised labour can still command interest and organise in many of the communities it once did. There is a difference between fostering a meaningful bond between people and institutions and doing well on social media.

Prior to the forced decline of the manufacturing and mining sectors, many of the ‘Red Wall’ communities were organised along specific lines of production. The nature of this work did most of the heavy lifting of trade union organising, workers were already packed together to serve the needs of capital. Consequently, all trade unions had to do was provide a bit of direction and impetus. This meant that trade unions were a fundamental component of many of these communities; they did not dictate developments in these communities, and there were many that they actively excluded and did not represent, but they also could not be ignored. Now, these communities are different and ravaged by over a decade of austerity; this makes the likely impact of a productive conversation with organised labour smaller.  

Many of the larger mining towns (not the pit villages) and ex-industrial centres now house new industries. For instance, delivery work, warehouses, and call centres have all become commonplace, and the gig economy has thrived as a result. This work is more precarious and not as innately social as the ‘traditional’ work of mining and the factory production line. Consequently, it does not give the town the same sense of identity and community. Many of these industries are precisely the type of industries that trade unions are struggling to organise in as they are in the private sector and built on precarious work. If trade unions are currently struggling to make a dent in these industries, it is perhaps optimistic to expect it to seize the imagination of the communities that house them. 

Further complicating Dave Ward’s proposed proletariat national tour is the emergence of new suburbs, with the illusions of affluence, on the outskirts of many of the former industrial communities. These suburbs are not built round work and often serve as commuter towns. Essentially, these settlements are organised one step away from production rather directly on top of it. This makes it all the harder for organised labour to gain a foothold: if there is no labour to organise then organised labour cannot exist.

However, there may still be a chance for labour to be organised in the new industries that inhabit the former industrial towns and engaging with the actual nature of this work is important, but it must be achieved before community meetings can take place. It is for this reason that the other parts of this composite be prioritised; specifically the presence of a dedicated budget and resource to support and work with affiliates to help achieve increased membership in the private sector. Engagement with communities will not lead to an uptake in trade unionism by said communities but the later will lead to the former.

Production has changed; therefore, society has changed. The idea of the trade union movement getting out on the road is enticing, and if it was a success this would be fantastic. However, it is hard to shake the thought that by doing this, trade unions are not reaching out to communities but instead chasing the movement’s own ghosts. If the harder task of organising the private sector and young workers is not properly addressed then, in a couple of generations time, this road-trip will end up being recorded as a farewell tour.

This article is part of The Social Review’s series on Trade Unions, with a commitment to publish at least one article a month on the subject – but we we want as many as possible. If you have an idea for an article, please read our pitching guidelines and email us at editors@thesocialreview.co.uk