The unions: march­ing into his­tory

The Week - - News | Talking Points -

Who speaks for to­day’s work­ing class? Not the Labour Party, said Frank Furedi on Spiked: it’s ob­sessed with iden­tity pol­i­tics and “seems to find in­dus­trial is­sues bor­ing”. Nor, it ap­pears, the trade unions – not least be­cause they lack the mus­cle to do so. They’ve been “on life sup­port” since the 1990s and are los­ing in­flu­ence by the day. As the Trades Union Con­gress cel­e­brated its 150th an­niver­sary this week, it emerged that union mem­ber­ship lev­els among un­der-30s fell to 15.7% last year, down from 20.1% in 2001. Frances O’grady, the TUC’S gen­eral sec­re­tary, ad­mit­ted the union move­ment had to “change or die”. Of­fi­cial fig­ures also showed that in­dus­trial ac­tion is be­com­ing ever rarer. There were only 79 stop­pages last year, the low­est fig­ure since records be­gan.

It seems para­dox­i­cal that young peo­ple have stopped join­ing unions at a time when they need their help more than ever, said Zoe Wil­liams in The Guardian. But they’ve stopped pre­cisely be­cause they’re “ghet­toed in low-wage sec­tors where unions aren’t recog­nised”. Let’s face it: when you’re try­ing to rack up ex­pe­ri­ence through un­paid in­tern­ships, scrap­ing by on a zero-hour con­tract or mak­ing a pre­car­i­ous liv­ing in the gig econ­omy you sim­ply don’t have the en­ergy to get or­gan­ised. The char­ac­ter of to­day’s frag­mented labour mar­ket has left the most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers out in the cold, agreed Ke­nan Ma­lik in The Ob­server. Unions have “in­creas­ingly be­come clubs for pro­fes­sion­als”. You are al­most twice as likely to be­long to one if you have a de­gree than if you have no qual­i­fi­ca­tions. “Unions have not just shrunk – their very char­ac­ter has changed.”

There are many ex­pla­na­tions for the de­cline in in­dus­trial ac­tion, said Sean O’grady in The In­de­pen­dent. They in­clude new laws re­strict­ing trade union power, struc­tural changes to the work­force, and tech­no­log­i­cal ad­vances, such as email, that have ren­dered picket lines less ef­fec­tive. But an­other big rea­son is that gov­ern­ments have given work­ers much of what they want. The Blair gov­ern­ment de­liv­ered the min­i­mum wage; Ge­orge Os­borne in­tro­duced the liv­ing wage. There are laws gov­ern­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion of all kinds, un­just dis­missal, and health and safety. A good lawyer is “of more use to the worker of 2018 than a shop ste­ward”. For too long, unions have been “run by and for the ben­e­fit of Trot­sky­ist dream­ers who imag­ine the over­throw of cap­i­tal­ism is just around the cor­ner. The real revo­lu­tion has al­ready hap­pened, brother: we’ve made the strike re­dun­dant.”

The TUC’S Frances O’grady: “change or die”

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