Trade unionists have gathered in Manchester this week for an annual Trades Union Congress that is historic for two paradoxical reasons. Firstly, it marks 150 years since the formation of the TUC, a legacy of which Britain should be proud. Throughout our century and a half, unions have improved working life and driven social change. But this Congress is also historic because official statistics published this summer show that the proportion of workers who are members of a union has fallen to 23.2%, the lowest proportion since current records began in 1995.
The truth is that it is not so much the age of our movement that matters; it is the age of the people in it. In fact, simple demographics mean that unions need to nearly double their membership amongst current under-35s over the next decade just to stand still.
The decline of union membership has many causes, but it is certainly not evidence of an absence of issues in the workplace. Wages have been stagnant since the financial crash causing misery for millions, while the rise to prominence of issues such as sexual harassment, bullying and the gender pay gap demonstrate the fertile ground for unions seeking issues to campaign on.
The world does not stand still. Automation and the fourth industrial revolution are changing work around us. Together with fears over Brexit and a widening gap between the highest earners and average wages, technology is bringing new challenges to the world of work. The future of unions depends on staying relevant to the future and the aspirations of the workforce.
It is certainly true that for the union movement to thrive we need a decisive shift of public policy in favour of worker voice, and my union has been at the forefront of that debate arguing for a new duty on large companies to bargain collectively with their workforce on pay and conditions. But focusing on how government makes life hard for unions should not be a substitute for identifying how we sometimes make life hard for ourselves.
If the union movement is to be fit to face the future then we need to change ourselves as well, otherwise we will face either further decline in a hostile environment or inability to take advantage of a more hospitable policy climate. To do this we need to rethink our offer and approach to a new generation of workers. Polling from Sky Data released by the IPPR this week showed that 71% of people aged 18-to-24 believe that employers have too much power compared to workers, with just 3% believing the opposite. Clearly there are huge opportunities for unions to recruit here, but to do so we need to modernise. Digital organising and streamlining the services offered to union members are vital parts of this, but they must be accompanied by a rethink of the language and brand of the union movement.
Most people do not dislike their employer, so instead of focusing on the industrial conflict that characterises a small percentage of what unions do, we must always stress the dedication to improving the working lives of our members that makes up the vast majority of what we do. And, while solidarity and collective action will always be fundamental to the success of trade unionism, they should never be the opening argument to potential new members. People do not join a union on Monday to go on strike on Tuesday, and people need compelling individual reasons to join unions as well as appeals to values. We stand for and help create prosperity. Let’s say more about that.
Many trade unionists are embracing this agenda and Congress offers an opportunity to recommit to the reform and energising of our movement. If we do not, then decline may become inevitable and workers, businesses and ultimately civic society will be the poorer for it.
Mike Clancy is the general secretary of Prospect