Saturday, 15 April 2017

Unionisation in the 21st Century

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 people. 
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 2017. 
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. 
Further 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 after all.

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