UNISON's victory over the government at the Supreme Court on the issue of the introduction of fees for Employment Tribunal applications is the most recent example of how unions are a 'public good'. This does not just mean a force for good but a good (as in a service) for, and to, the public at large, covering those who are not union members and may even be antagonist to unions or anti-union.
Historically speaking, unions have always benefitted larger numbers of workers than they have had in membership. The coverage of collective bargaining over pay and conditions has always been greater than the numbers of union members. In 1996, the fruits of collective bargaining covered 36% of the workforce while union membership was 31% of the workforce. In 2006, the figures were 35% and 28% and in 2016 26% and 21% respectively.
The benefit of unions is seen most clearly in the union wage mark-up - the difference between the wages of workers in unionised industries and those in non-unionised industries. Even with union decline and weakness, by 2016 wages were still 14% higher in unionised industries than in non-unionised industries. This benefits the non-union members in unionised industries. Often these are called 'free riders'. Other benefits of the effect of unions are evident in terms of health and safety, terms for redundancy and so on. In other words, union do not just play the role of serving 'vested interests', namely, the instrumental needs of their members, but they also play the wider role of wielding the 'sword of justice' for workers as a whole.
Bearing this in mind and returning to the UNISON victory, it is clear that it will be of great help in restoring access to higher levels justice in the workplace for union members and non-union members alike. Indeed, the need to access justice in the workplace is arguably greater in the non-unionised workplace than unionised workplace precisely because of the absence of a union able to negotiate on workers' terms and conditions of employment.
And this really gets to the nub of the point about unions being a 'public good'. It was only the resources of a union like UNISON that could see it fight the case, taking it from the High Court to Appeal Court and then to Supreme Court. At no point did UNISON ask for the ruling it sought only to be applicable to union members. Instead, it fought the 'good fight' on behalf of its members knowing full well it would benefit all workers. Greeting the Supreme Court announcement, UNISON said it was: 'A massive win for our union and a massive win for all workers'.
So there is a very strong case for saying that there is a pressing need to strengthen the ability of unions to do their job of protecting and advancing their members' interests because this will benefit workers in general. Currently, only one major political party advocates such a perspective, and that is the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.