Guest Blog by Elliot Jones, reprinted from Fabian Society magazine (April 2017)
Across the world, trade unions have brought together workers to defend their rights. Through
collective action they fought for improved working conditions, higher pay and equality for millions of
Not only that, they have been a key pillar of the Labour Party since its inception, providing a
base of financial and organisational support.
So looking at trade union membership in the United Kingdom today seems to paint a grim picture; it
has faced a nearly four-decade decline, from a peak of over 13 million in 1979 to less than half that in
Whether because of more stringent union regulations, decline in the manufacturing bases they
traditionally drew support from or the perception that have become antiquated behemoths that are
more concerned with party politics than workers’ rights; trade unions have clearly struggled with the
transition to the 21st century.
Yet as we look ahead to the new economy, trade unions only have more
challenges to face.
Perhaps the starkest is that of automation; while the steps towards mechanisation provided the
conditions for their creation, this ‘fourth industrial revolution” may well be their undoing. With
autonomous vehicles, self-checkouts and other innovations encroaching on every sector, as many as
35% of UK jobs face being axed in the next 20 years.
This means a declining workforce for unions to
draw on and those workers becoming less crucial to business, weakening the remaining bargaining
power they do have.
The second and more immediate challenge is the rise in unstable “gig economy” jobs. With over
900,000 on zero-hour contracts and 1 in 7 workers self-employed, up from 1 in 9 in 2000, increasing
the idea of entire career at a single employer is becoming a thing of the past.
This more fragmented
labour market means that unions may find it more difficult to establish clear, long-term relationships
and achieve bargaining power with firms on behalf of members who constantly move around.
workers with rapidly changing circumstances may find it difficult to determine which trade union is
right for them.
So what can trade unions do to overcome these challenges?
One possible avenue is adapting their
negotiating approach. Rather than take a neo-Luddite stance and fight to protect jobs at all costs, the
best path forward is working with employers to embrace the benefits of automation and growing
flexibility, to make sure that workers receive their fair share.
This would mean pushing for a gradual
transition, ensuring workers are given realistic and funded opportunities to retrain and helping people
plan for the future.
A second solution may involve looking to the past. Reorganising into single professional unions that
provide much clearer options for who workers should turn to in their sector and connect more
personally with members in a particular sector. This would also help them seem less internally focused,
while still allowing them to conduct important cross-union and party political action through
federations like TUC.
Finally, trade unions could look to the start-up world for a little inspiration. Many fields, especially
those in the service and digital sectors lack dedicated unions tailored to their needs; through a trade
union incubator, established unions could provide their wealth of expertise, support and funding to
those seeking to establish a foothold in underrepresented areas and provide a forum for the
development of future union engagement tools.
With these strategies available to them and the suggestion union strength may have declined because
they have achieved so much already, the future of trade unions and their cause may not be so bleak