The unions: marching into history
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.”