Unions risk irrelevance without reform

Dec 08 2005 by Brian Amble Print This Article

Britain's trade unions are stuck in the past and risk becoming irrelevant unless they stop fighting yesterday's battles and realise that younger workers are more interested in "getting on" than they are in "getting even".

That's the uncompromising message contained in a new pamphlet from one of the elder statesmen of the trade union movement, former TUC economics chief David Coats.

But despite clear evidence that workers want unions to be both independent and co-operative, not militant and confrontational, Coats argues that the crude adversarialism of many union leaders only reinforces the view that they are stuck in the past, fighting battles in a class war that is of little relevance to most people today.

The crude adversarialism of many union leaders only reinforces the view that they are stuck in the past
Many potential members are put off by "union rhetoric of struggle, strikes and strife which has little appeal to employees who care more about 'getting on' than 'getting even'", he says.

And workers obviously agree with him. Nine out of 10 say that working with employers to increase productivity should be a key union priority, one that is just as important as action on pay, equality and unfair treatment.

Union membership in Britain has halved over the past 25 years from over 12 million in 1979 to 6.4 million today. And while some six out of ten public sector workers are still union members, the same is true of fewer than one in five (19 per cent) of the private sector workforce.

Nevertheless, Coats says that the fact that more than six out of 10 workers still support the idea of a collective voice in the workplace proves that union decline is not inevitable.

Unions will succeed, he argues, if they realign themselves to the new realities of the labour market and can appeal to both the top and bottom of our new 'hourglass economy' - where there more jobs at the top and bottom of the labour market (both more McJobs at McDonalds and MacJobs at Apple'), but a hollowing out in the middle-income jobs where unions were traditionally strongest.

"Both unions and government must abandon the pattern of unions making an unrealistic demand and the Government responding with a resounding 'no' and develop a sustained dialogue about what is wrong in Britain's world of work," Coats writes.

"We know that many people are working longer and harder; stress is reaching epidemic proportions; employment insecurity is wide-spread and that the quality of working life has declined over the last decade.

"In their mutual distrust, unions and government they are missing the opportunity to build a progressive consensus in the workplace."

But by continuing to decline in benign economic conditions, Coats says that unions now have a fundamental problem with the their brand, product and marketing. strategy.

"Struggle, strife and a better yesterday won't appeal to today's workforce - setting a new agenda around the problems in today's world of work around low pay, equality for women, skills, productivity and working time could build a progressive consensus in the workplace," he says.