Saturday, July 22, 2017
Trade Unions in decline?
I haven’t been ignoring the trade union movement since giving up my various positions within UNISON - but I must admit to having failed, over the past six weeks to comment upon important official statistics about the state of our union movement.
It’s not good news comrades.
Around 6.2 million employees in the UK were trade union members in 2016. The level of overall union members decreased by 275,000 over the year from 2015 (a 4.2% decrease), the largest annual fall recorded since the series began in 1995. Current membership levels are well below the peak of over 13 million in 1979.
It’s not just our numbers that are falling.
The trade union wage gap, defined as the percentage difference in average gross hourly earnings of union members compared with non-members, is 14.5% in 2016 in the public sector, down from 16.1% in 2015 (and 30.3% in 1995). In the private sector the decline was more modest in one year (from 7.7% to 7.6%) – but this is less than half the differential of 15.3% which applied in 1995.
So our effectiveness as collective organisations of working people is in decline.
Fewer workers are in trade unions because trade unions offer less to workers.
Who should be rising to the challenges implied by these statistics?
Perhaps it should be the leaders of our movement.
But what do we have by way of leadership of trade unions in 2017?
A TUC General Secretary prepared to welcome policy proposals from an incumbent Conservative Government during a General Election campaign would be difficult to take seriously if the TUC itself mattered much. That is not the case.
What matters most in the leadership of the trade unions is, I guess, the leadership of the large unions – but the picture there is hardly encouraging.
Our third largest trade union, the GMB, has a General Secretary elected by a narrow majority of one twentieth of the membership in an election, the conduct of which has been criticised by the Employment Appeal Tribunal.
UNITE, the largest union in its own opinion, has recently re-elected its General Secretary in an unnecessary election (in which support for the incumbent declined – and which will face a challenge to the Certification Officer).
As for UNISON, whilst our General Secretary himself cannot be criticised, his most recent election has been subject to withering scrutiny (and its outcome was that he was supported by less than a majority in the lowest turnout we had seen).
I don’t intend, in this blog post, to set out the answers but to draw attention to the problem – which is that our trade union movement is declining in membership and effectiveness whilst under the leadership of those who do not appear to command the confidence of our members (nor have any idea about how to respond to this crisis).
There is more to be said about the reasons for the current predicament of our trade union movement.
I will return to this topic as time permits.