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Trade Unions Have a Key Role to Play in the Transformation of Our Broken Economic Model

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As I was marching yesterday towards Trafalgar Square - surrounded by members of Unison, the PCS union, the FBU, RMT and many other public service unions collectively demanding an end to the massive effective cuts in pay, safety for their pensions and protection from job losses - I had a Twitter exchange with a carer.

She said, to paraphrase, that she wished she had the terms and conditions of many public sector workers in her almost universally outsourced, cut-throat, exploitative role, a role that is at the same time critical to the life of the most vulnerable in our society.

I sympathised, for there's no doubt that carers - who are unpaid for the essential travelling time between their often all-too-short scheduled appointments, expected to provide their own transport with often inadequate mileage rates and forced to deal with incredibly difficult situations with rarely more support than their own common sense and compassion - are some of the most exploited workers in our society.

But I did have a simple question for her: have you asked your union for help?

While it should be all of our responsibility to fight for better conditions for carers and other exploited workers, indeed all workers paid less than a living wage, we know that, in general, unionised workers are better off than non-unionised.

Even in Britain, home to the toughest anti-union legislation in Western Europe, unions make a difference; strong unions make a bigger one.

And you could feel that yesterday, in the drizzly rain, as the mile-long march snaked into Trafalgar Square (I don't know how many people there were, but the estimates putting it in the low thousands were clearly a joke) when people unite and stand up for their rights not to be treated like doormats, they're strong.

That's why I was proud to be standing on the side of the march, talking to BBC News, expressing the Green Party's support for the action by workers concerned not just for their own position but for the government's disastrous austerity policies which are making the people who weren't responsible for the financial crisis be the ones who have to pay for it.

There's evidence of that union strength from history too. It was as the power of the unions was cut that inequality started to rise in Anglo societies around the world. After the "great levelling" of the '50s to '70s, the race towards '20s levels of inequality, on towards Edwardian ones, began.

It's even got to the point now where such "radical" organisations as the IMF and the World Bank are suggesting that inequality is a threat to the world's economic stability.

And that's a powerful reason for many social actors, beyond workers and their unions, to argue not just against David Cameron's attempted populist moves to further restrictions of union rights, but to call for moves in the opposite direction, so that the numerous benefits of collective action and bargaining are properly recognised.

That's what businesses should be doing, taking a step toward the transformation our broken economic model so clearly needs.

Of course the other reason is that that carer, and many like her, also need a union to fight for and win a decent life, pay and conditions that enable her to do her difficult, skilled job well without stress, worry and fear of penury.

The fact that some workers - particularly the victims of the failed model of privatisation of public services that we now know is built on slashing the pay and conditions or workers and the quality of services, while pumping public money into private hands and all too often offshore tax havens - are being treated miserably is no reason to drag others down to that level. Their conditions are all the more reason to fight to lift everyone to a decent level.

Around the Web

Trade unions in the United Kingdom - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Joining a trade union - GOV.UK

10 July strikes: the unions striking and the services affected

Lords debate the contribution of trade unions to the British economy