It is crazy to think that people think that we no longer need unions when more than ever we are being taken advantage off. Do you really think that your mum and dad worked unpaid internships in the hope of a job? Do you really think that before the recession people would have been happy with a zero hour contract? Think again.
Labour Union ties – Are unions still relevant?
Many people now see unions as a relic of the past; a throwback to the heyday of British industry. It is no secret that the once mighty powers of trade unions have been greatly diminished over the past few decades. In 1979 over 13.5 million British workers were part of a union. Statistics taken in 2012 showed that this number had withered to a mere 6.5 million. It would be an easy assumption therefore to argue that this drop in membership reflects a lack of relevance. However, this would be severely inaccurate and would ignore the fact that since 2011, union memberships in the UK have been steadily rising for the first time in over a decade which would suggest an increase in union spirit. This rise is largely attributed to the severe austerity measures within the public sector and harsh cuts within the private sector. Workers are now realising all too well their vulnerability within the workplace and understand the need to take action.
I spoke to David, a Council Worker and former Union Representative who believes that unions are more relevant than ever due to the fact that “the working classes are being taken for a ride and employers have never had it so good”. During his time as Union Representative, David dealt with the crucial issues that concerned his co-workers, such as disciplinaries, pay increments, working conditions and hours of work. David believes that employers are scared of unions as they are worried about being made to give workers the conditions that they really don’t want to give them. The role of the Union Representative has changed drastically during David’s time at the council. There are now far fewer Union Representatives in the workplace and in times of crisis, employees do not know where to turn.
The powers that be have always been afraid of trade unions. This is because trade unions enable everyday working people to stand up for their rights against reckless government or corporate changes. Trade unions also allow workers to One could argue that this need could be adequately fulfilled through the modern HR System but this is a pretty weak argument. A HR Representative is not there to fight for change or to improve on working conditions. Real change comes through a sense of unity of purpose and clear, organized action. A HR Representative might listen to and record your complaints but ultimately their power is limited. One person alone will struggle to stand up to a large corporation or a government department but a strong, well organized union can achieve remarkable things.
Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously hated unions and wanted to see them all destroyed. She was frightened of the power that unions afforded working class people, whose opinions were dangerous to her vision of England when put into action. Throughout her long reign as British Prime Minister, she systematically destroyed unions and as a result undermined the powers and the voices of the working classes, altering the shape of Britain forever.
I spoke to Carol, former Civil Servant who is now working as a Teacher who has always been part of a union. During the course of both her careers she has seen the benefits of union action. She is a firm and lifelong believer in the importance of unions and has strong views about the powers of representation. Carol believes that without the action of unions, we wouldn’t have the relatively comfortable working conditions that we enjoy in Britain today. If you look to the terrible working conditions in some third world countries, then this is all too clear. Carol believes that the role of the union is especially important in the time of recession. This is because during times of economic crisis, employers may feel that they have the upper hand but unions can protect you.
Carol believes that the changing nature of unions is due to changes in the British class structure. At the time of strong unions, the British class structure could be thought off as being a triangular shape; with a few very rich people at the top and lots of working class people at the bottom. Now the British class structure could be better described as being diamond shape with a few rich people at the top, and a few working class people at the bottom, but with a wide middle of lower and middle middle classes. The nature of how we use the term working classes has changed somewhat. Nowadays, people may associate working class people as being benefits claimants. Therefore, people who previously would have identified as working class do not identify as such and instead see themselves as middle class.
This is largely due to the fact that the British job market has changed drastically. People who would have onced worked with their hands in factories or the mining industry now work in retail or call centre settings. Due to the fact that many Brits view unions as being working class, something that so many have dissociated themselves from, they may not see unions as being relevant to them. As a result, unions do not have the same level of support from their members. This is despite the fact that many modern day workplaces, such as retail environments and call centres, can be incredibly exploitative in terms of worker’s rights.
During her time in the civil service, Carol saw many changes in terms of union representation. She can still remember the days when a Union Representative was hired on a full time basis, when union meetings were held during work hours on work premises. Towards the end of her time in the civil service, meetings were no longer allowed during work hours and nobody had the time to facilitate them after working hours. Carol can remember a time when unions used to support other unions. She can remember how during the mining strike, she and other fellow Civil Servants would donate money in support of the mining union. Of course, this has now changed largely due to changes in worker self identity.
As a Teacher, Carol now enjoys the support of a strong union, as The National Union of Teachers still has quite a considerable amount of power. However, she can feel this being steadily undermined by the rise of academies which she believes are built to deliberately undermine the authority of The National Union of Teachers. This would have extremely negative consequences for those in the teaching career. Carol is still an active member of union life; making sure to protest even in support of issues that are not directly relating to herself. She believes that it is a person’s duty to support their union, not just to accept all the benefits of it.
Unions have indeed lost a great deal of power but they are still a crucial part of our working lives. I for one believe that unions are still incredibly relevant. We are living in an age of zero hour contracts; where graduates are happy to get an unpaid internship. We expect less from our working conditions and as a result are getting taken advantage off. Educate yourself about your sector of work and the rights that you should be entitled to. Find out about your union, support it, support your colleagues and if you can then get involved as a Union Representative. Make sure that your workplace is one that you are proud to be a part of.