The biggest problem facing the British labour movement is the decline of the unionised workforce and its replacement with a new army of zero-hour employees and temporary contractors. As more and more people choose to work on contracts that can't guarantee employment from one day to the next, the relevance of unions in the 21st century is seemingly on the decline. It is rare to see industrial action outside of the public sector, with only a few disputes - such as the one at Grangemouth last year - capturing media attention. Despite figures earlier this year suggesting that union membership had increased, less than 15% of private sector employees are members of a union. This has catastrophic implications for the rights of UK workers and poses a significant threat to the strength of the wider trade union movement. Britain needs to reverse this trend through unionising its growing temporary workforce and revitalising the age-old struggle for better pay and working conditions. If it fails to do so, the consequences will be irreversible.
It is near impossible to go on 'strike' in the traditional sense if you're a zero-hours worker, as the nature of your contract means that you can never be sure that you'll be working on the days that you've planned a strike. With this in mind, how can Britain's unions fight for temporary workers?
Let agency workers be unionised:
The biggest employers of zero-hours workers are the large agency firms that operate across almost all industries, filling gaps in the labour market and profiting from the sale of their employees' labour to other businesses. The financial model of agencies such as Workforce Plus or ASAP Recruitment is perhaps one of the most exploitative, yet these companies remain severely unregulated. With so many agency workers underpaid and underpresented, trade unions are the way forward. By calling organised strikes among employees, it is very likely that unions would be able to put pressure on businesses and encourage the agencies to compromise with the needs of their workers.
Unions in the community:
Do unions need to exist solely within the workplace? History tells us no - trade unions used to be at the heart of virtually all working class communities, especially in the Northern coalmining industries. The spirit, strength and solidarity of British workers was not always found just through striking, it was apparent in the will of the community to fight for better living conditions and secure political self-determination.
Unite have already taken the right steps with their community membership program that aims to bring together people who "have been pushed to the margins of society". If Unite can get the unemployed voting in their interests and fighting Tory austerity measures, their community members would be simultaneously helping the traditional employed wing of the union.
Labour must defend its historic link with the trade unions and the wider labour movement. Ed Miliband must listen to the demands of ordinary workers, especially those blighted by low pay and zero-hours contracts. There must be an acceptance within the party that revitalising the trade union movement is the next step toward building a fairer and more equal Britain.