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A Movement to Win

The next Labour government will provide the foundations for a new era of trade unionism in Britain. But it will be up to workers to build it.

The department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) actually reported some good news last month: their annual statistical bulletin on trade union membership saw an overall rise in trade union membership of around 102,000 to 6.35 million across all sectors.

Any rise in union membership is positive, and to be welcomed across the labour movement and, of course, in the Labour Party. It’s always good to remind people that the Labour Party was effectively created by trade unions along with socialist societies in 1900, as a vehicle to represent the voices of workers in parliament. So, an increase in trade union membership is a boost to us in the Labour Party, just as the explosion in party membership between 2015–2017 should benefit the trade union movement.

However, there are two caveats in these statistics: firstly, the increase in membership of 149,000 to 3.7 million in the public sector masks a fall of 42,000 in the private sector. Although there was an increase in private sector membership in the previous year, by 70,000 to 2.65 million, the decrease in private sector membership in 2018 is part of a longer-term downward trend. Between 1995 and 2010, for instance, trade union membership in the private sector fell by 905,000. Since 2010, trade union membership has steadied, but it is at very low levels, with only 13.2% of private sector employees being in unions.

There are also some big contrasts in trade union membership across sex, geographical regions and age groups. Last year, trade union membership among women increased to 26.2%, while the rate among men fell to 20.7%. That is a reverse of the situation in 1995, when membership amongst men was significantly higher. Proportionately, there are significantly more trade union members in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the North East and North West, than in London and the South West. The North East, a traditional heartland for the trade union movement, leads the way with 28.9% in trade union membership, compared to just 18.2% in London and the South East.

Even more worrying, there is a huge disparity between older and younger workers when it comes to union membership. We are all aware of the effect that the influx of younger people into the Labour Party has had, but that doesn’t seem to have translated into the trade union movement yet. Of employees who were trade union members in 2018, 4.4% were aged between 16 and 24; 18.7% were aged between 25 and 34; 37.9% were aged between 35 to 49 and 39% were aged 50 or older. TUC analysis shows that over the past 25 years, union membership has fallen by 40% amongst 16 to 24-year-olds and nearly 30% amongst 25 to 34-year-olds.

More worrying still, it’s quite likely that, wherever you live, whatever your age, and whatever your job status, your awareness of trade unions and what they do will be a lot lower than it was three or four decades ago. Many workers do not come across trade unions at all in their working lives — especially those who work in private sector, precarious jobs and in smaller workplaces. Trade union history is rarely taught in our schools and collective bargaining coverage — where unions are present in a workplace or a company to negotiate with employers over wages and other conditions — is lower than at any time in our history.

Trade unions are aware of this and have invested time and effort into both educating and recruiting young workers. High-profile campaigns like the #McStrike and the #SpoonsStrike are targeted especially at the precarious existence of many young employees in workplaces such as McDonald’s and Wetherspoons, where low wages, job insecurity, and a zero hours culture have become commonplace. But these are hostile environments for trade unions and their young activists, and we have heard many a horror story about how young trade unionists have been picked off by anti-union employers. Union busting tactics are now absolutely standard in many workplaces.

McDonald’s, Sports Direct, and Wetherspoons are just the tip of an iceberg — one part of a general movement towards a casualised, zero hours, disposable workforce. This is what angers me so much when the Tories crow about the increases in employment during almost a decade of austerity: so much of it is about creating low-paid, precarious, temporary work which merely entrenches poverty. ‘In-work poverty is the biggest challenge facing our economy and for millions of families, low pay has become the norm rather a stepping stone to well-paid work and economic security,’ the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found in a recent report ‘five out of six workers fail to escape low paid jobs over a ten year period’.

The trade union movement, in the context of historic decline over the last four decades (in 1979 over 13 million people were trade union members in the UK, today’s membership stands at less than half that — 6.35 million), has a huge task ahead of it. But we have no choice. Organising the unorganised isn’t just a slogan — it’s our route to a healthier economy and, most importantly, a more equal society. Study after study finds a direct correlation between levels of inequality and the gradual erosion of trade union membership and coverage.

That’s why it’s important that there has been a culture shift in the Labour Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. We will all recall the symbolic importance of Jeremy and John visiting picket lines during the 2015 leadership election, and it is now a regular sight at trade union disputes to see shadow ministers and other Labour MPs showing solidarity and speaking on picket lines. It was not always so. That culture shift is made concrete in the commitment that the Labour leadership has made to establish a Labour Ministry, with oversight and responsibility for employment rights, collective bargaining, enforcement and statutory minimums in any future Labour government. As the person given the honour of developing this ministry in opposition, I am excited about the transformational changes that will come from the legislation we are proposing.

The Labour Party in government will be committed to developing the legislative framework to enable trade unions to organise and bargain freely, to have access to workers, to withdraw their labour if necessary, to ballot their members easily, and to be able to call to account bosses who pay below statutory minimums and treat workers badly. I have no doubt that this will not only be greeted with a huge sigh of relief by trade unionists across the country, but will transform our workplaces from oppressive environments to ones where workers are once again able to assert their rights.

It’s easy to forget that for many years, there were two main approaches to the unions by the leaderships of our party. First, a conscious distance — as if the unions, who gave birth to the party, were almost an embarrassment, an anachronism which held us back electorally. Second, a subtle marginalisation of union voices in the party, where they were treated like just another interest group. With this way of thinking, there would never be any question of supporting workers in struggle, because it was the party’s job to stay ‘neutral’. The party has changed, and now understands the centrality of the trade union movement to our politics, in and out of government.

But while a future Labour government can and will provide the legislation which will secure strong trade union and employment rights, it cannot change the working environment for most workers without an enormous organising effort by the trade union movement. In that sense, we are partners in this project: the Labour government providing the conditions, and a newly-energised trade union movement providing the collective drive to organisation. There will have to be a joint effort to educate a whole new generation about the importance of the trade union movement and its history, and the use of innovative organising methods to excite the millions who are not currently members about the possibilities that organised workplaces bring.

This is what a Labour government will look like: it won’t just be a left-wing version of what went before, with an exclusive focus on parliament or Westminster concerns. It will be wholly transformational and include trade unions and workers at the very heart of its operation. It will, in a break with the past, encourage not just trade union membership, but trade union organisation. I won’t apologise, nor will any of my shadow cabinet colleagues, for putting trade unionists, and importantly, workers, in a position of power. It’s time to fight back against the race to the bottom on workers’ rights, pay, and conditions. We have a world to win.