A World Without Unions

Right-wing governments and big business interests are determined to bury unions for good - but they continue to be workers' best line of defence at work and in society.

What would a world without unions look like? Are unions still relevant in a changing world, in which the robots are coming for so many of our good jobs, and may even go for what’s left of the rest? 

Our history shows that unions are the barometers of such changes. We see these kinds of development at their earliest stages. We hear our members’ anecdotes as events happen. We do the research to uncover what is really going on. Without us, workplaces today would be dangerous, deadly and largely devoid of decent jobs. Unregulated, low-paid, insecure, zero-hour contract and agency jobs with long hours would be practically all that remained. 

Yes, such jobs now dominate our service sector economy, but without unions they would exist with none of the rights and protections either already won for workers, or currently being fought for. 

Karl Marx, in his great critique of how the capitalist system works, Capital, wrote about the struggle for the ‘normal working day’ that brought about the Factory Acts. He described how capital, over centuries, had extended the working day not just to its natural limit, but beyond (so that even the definitions of day and night became confused). 

Many of the reforms to post-industrial-revolution working conditions and workers’ rights were achieved by the struggle of the emerging labour movement. They were secured through industrial disputes, or by working with progressive Labour governments, or by exploiting the opportunities the law provides to fight injustices. Anti-union laws throughout history have left employers holding most of the cards, but the law has also been a weapon in our armoury that can help give workers a voice. 

Legal Victories

Trade unions and their lawyers have pursued most of the test cases that established and developed the laws around health and safety at work, both before and since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. 

For example, it was unions who brought the first ever successful case for asbestos-related-disease compensation in the UK to the House of Lords in 1972, and they have been involved in every significant case around the law of asbestos compensation since then. Unions have supported hundreds of workers and their families who have developed asbestos-related diseases as a result of exposure at work or in childhood. 

That is not all. Without both the industrial and political work undertaken by trade unions, there would be no laws governing maximum working hours, no working-at-height regulations, no personal protective equipment, no lifting and manual handling regulations, no sick pay, no right to paid rest breaks. 

I could go on, and as dry as some of these terms may seem – and as much as they might bring about howls of ‘health and safety gone mad’ from the Daily Mail – they make all our working lives safer. 

Our legal battles have also protected employment rights: equal pay, the national minimum wage, agency workers’ rights, pension rights, family friendly policies, maternity and paternity leave, holiday pay, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to time off work for trade union activities, the right to be accompanied by a trade union rep to grievance and disciplinary hearings. These are all rights that if you were starting work today, you’d simply take for granted (though not in the gig economy). 

Righting Wrongs

In 2017 the Supreme Court confirmed that the coalition Tory–Liberal Democrat government was wrong to deny working people access to justice by imposing fees for employment tribunals (ET) in 2010. It was a case pursued by Unison but was a victory for all workers, and particularly for equality and for the restoration of a semblance of balance in the workplace. 

Tribunal fees required anyone who felt they had been dealt an injustice at work to pay up to £1,200 to make a claim. The result was a shocking drop in sex, race and disability discrimination claims: nearly 80 per cent fewer ET cases were brought over three years.

This allowed discrimination at work to flourish unchecked – a gift to bad bosses from the political party that claims to be the friend of working people. And even now the Ministry of Justice is considering how to bring fees back.

Elsewhere, establishing in the courts that Uber drivers are ‘workers’, and therefore entitled to basic rights such as the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay and parental leave, was a fantastic victory for the GMB. Unite, meanwhile, won a landmark legal victory forcing employers to include voluntary overtime in holiday pay calculations.

Winning for Workers

These are ground-breaking successes that undoubtedly level the playing field a little, but they do not end exploitative employment practices on their own. Nor do they, in isolation, empower workers or provide collective or equal rights. Legal action doesn’t replace the work that unions must do, organising in workplaces to drive out unfairness and injustice. 

Twice, we successfully defeated a High Court challenge by Argos intended to quash our industrial action, begun to start the fight back against the restrictions placed on unions by the Trade Union Act. 

That action did not get rid of the Act, but it did demonstrate how trade union legal strategies have an essential part to play in our continued fight on behalf of our members, and how our legal work is now more integrated with our industrial activity than it ever has been. 

Pursuing these strategies also won compensation of over £10 million for blacklisted workers in the building industry. Obviously, no sum can overcome the injustice done to those workers, whose lives were wrecked by firms who denied them work on account of their trade unionism and by the police and security services, who we now know, as a result of the ‘spycops’ inquiry, were also involved in the blacklisting of workers on an industrial scale.

However, securing compensation has been a big step towards righting that wrong. Unions continue to fight for such victims, but only a separate public inquiry will reveal the full truth of the scandal. 

In landmark litigation we have established that it is unlawful for companies to offer pay rises to those who leave a union. We successfully challenged British Airway’s attempts to financially punish the mixed fleet members who took strike action. BA was forced finally to concede that it had to resolve the sanctions issue and compensate our members. 

Nowhere has the integration of legal and industrial action been more visible during the Birmingham bins dispute, where members went on strike against pay cuts imposed by a Labour council who had bullied both workers and their union, and had reneged on a settlement reached at ACAS. Unite secured an injunction to stop the local authority making the workers redundant. This legal action was key in forcing the employer back to its senses. 

Anti-Union Laws

In the past, especially during the Thatcher period, unions did not have the leadership to resist the concerted assault on their powers, designed to drive a wedge between the unions and their members. 

The destruction of British manufacturing, in particular heavy industry, began in the 1980s with Thatcher’s neoliberal economics and her determination to break the unions, alongside Ronald Reagan’s deregulating assault on industry and the creation of ‘liberal’ conditions for finance to operate on a more global stage. 

The Tories’ successive waves of anti-union legislation began with the 1980 Employment Act, followed by the 1982 Employment Act, the Trade Union Act 1984, the Public Order Act 1986 and a further Employment Act in 1988. 

The measures included restricting the right to strike, making secondary action unlawful, criminalising some types of picketing, ending the closed shop, undercutting worker protections, and reducing the capacity of trade unions to organise and to conduct their own business in line with their own rules. 

Thatcher may have started this, but successive governments allowed labour, as a commodity, to be discounted in the drive towards a flexible, service sector economy. New Labour was happy to allow this swing away from manufacturing to continue, in favour of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) and the fragmentation of work. Its leadership was part of a national consensus that was willing to embrace a globalised free market, a deregulated financial sector and a flexible labour market. 

New Labour refused to recognise the economic impact of not freeing the unions from Thatcher’s shackles. Tony Blair remained true to his disgraceful boast that under his government anti-union legislation would continue to be the most restrictive in Europe. 

‘We will still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world, and it will stay that way,’ he told the Sun during the 1997 election campaign. Sure enough, when New Labour came to power in 1997 it did very little to restore trade union rights. 

A Union Future

During the 1970s, when the trade unions were strong, living standards took great strides forward for millions of people. But the dramatic changes the Tories made to collective bargaining during the 1980s made it much more difficult to organise workers on a sectoral basis, so that by 1990 collective bargaining coverage had fallen to 55 per cent from around 70 per cent in 1980. By the turn of the millennium, only one in three workers were covered by a collective bargaining agreement. 

It is no accident that workers’ share of GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in Britain has fallen from a high of almost 70 per cent in the 1970s to around 50 per cent today. Any A-level economics student could tell you the devastating impact that has on an economy. And it is a direct result of deindustrialisation and deunionisation. 

It is up to us to fight for our position in a new society, socially planned and regulated by a progressive government, with powerful unions and civil society involved in charting our way forward. Reindustrialisation and automation can be steered in the right direction and their benefits reaped by society. We do not need to view the future of our economy in trepidation and fear; we can, together, fight for something better. 

Trade unions underpin democracy, in a world where it is increasingly under threat. In spite of the decades of attacks aimed at undermining our influence and ability to stand up for working people, we stand defiantly uncrushed. 

We are different groups of workers, with different histories, different militancies, or none. Trade unions have to represent all those groups in different and new ways. But always the central theme of solidarity, which we can never put a price on, shines through. Workers want to be treated fairly. That’s as common as drawing breath. We fight for fairness. 

Being trade unionists gives us the ability to look the boss in the eye, to look powerful people in the eye, and stand firm against injustices. And it gives us opportunities – to be educated, to become future leaders, and to meet so many good people along the way. 

Unions are as necessary today as they were during and after the industrial revolution, and being an active trade unionist shows us how we can affect the lives of those around us. As trade unionists we must restore hope. 

To quote from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s ‘The Masque of Anarchy’, my favourite poem, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre, we must ‘rise like lions’, rise to the challenges and never lose faith in our collective power. 

Tony Benn told of how his father said to him: ‘Dare to be a Daniel. Dare to stand alone. Dare to have a purpose rm. Dare to let it [be] known.’ Now I say to my children, ‘there is always more to be done. And, above all, have the courage to always be on the side of the angels.’ 

So that’s my case: trade unionists care for people, they defend people. It’s why being a trade unionist matters.