Saturday, August 1, 2009

Are trade unions back in fashion?

The Guardian
Saturday 1 August 2009
Are trade unions back in fashion?

As recession-weary employees look for ways to safeguard their jobs and protect their pay, Caroline Palmer says it's no surprise organised labour bodies are enjoying a revival

People, that is you and I, are living in fear, and, for once, I am not referring to swine flu, although that hasn't helped. The fear is of losing our jobs. A survey of 1,200 American workers this year asked: "How far would you go to hang on to your job?" Almost one-third said that they would behave immorally, including back-stabbing or lying. Younger respondents, aged between 18 and 34, were more likely to throw morals to the wind.

But there is an alternative, and young workers, in the UK at least, are starting to reverse a trend by joining trade unions in an attempt to improve their job security. Glen Howgate, a 24-year-old shop worker, joined his union, Usdaw, because he thought he'd need their help. "Thankfully it didn't come to that," he says. "There have been a lot of redundancies where I work, but being a union member has really boosted my confidence."

While the latest official statistics show that trade union membership in the UK fell more than 2% to 27.4% in 2008, new figures from Unison, Britain's biggest public sector trade union, indicate a rise in new members this year. More than 12,000 young people (16- to 27-year-olds) joined Unison in the first six months of this year – 1,500 up on the same period last year – and the union is predicting that this growth will continue. Overall, membership of Unison is also growing, a trend that other unions also say they are seeing.

After decades of steady decline, trade unions face their biggest challenge – persuading a new generation of workers that, in the face of the worst recession since the 1930s, being a union member really will make a difference to their working lives.

The main incentives, as one trade union official put it, "are protecting decent wages, protecting your job, and, if the worst happens, getting a fair redundancy deal. People in the private sector are getting shafted."

But here is the challenge unions face. In 1980, 55% of workers belonged to a union; today, fewer than one in five workplaces negotiate over pay, hours or holidays; and 64% of workplaces have no union members at all.

There are many reasons for this, hostile management being a common one. Symeon Cope works in the security industry and has never joined a trade union. "Where I've worked, if management got wind of anything like that, they'd find reason to sack us, or worse," he explains.

But unions must also take some of the responsibility. Their industrial base started to collapse in the 1980s and they have made little inroads into newer industries such as IT and finance. They also stand accused of being out of touch with today's workforce, led as most of them are by white, middle-aged males who cut their teeth on old-style confrontations with "the bosses".

Rob MacGregor, a national officer with Unite, has some sympathy with this view. "There is a whole generation of workers with no family or community links to organised labour," he admits. "I don't think there is hostility towards us, just no knowledge of what we do. Trade unions have a job to do to start looking like their members.

"As a middle-aged white male I am less and less like those we need to reach. Our message also needs to be more relevant. We need to be not just about career development and salaries but also about the environment and social justice."

But does being a union member make a difference in terms of how much you are paid and how secure your job is? The latest figures suggest union members earn around 12.5% more per hour than their non-union counterparts. And research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that about 3 million union members in the private sector (a fifth of all employees) enjoy a pay premium of around 10% directly as a result of strong collective bargaining.

Then there is compensation for people who have been unfairly dismissed. According to figures from the Labour Research Department, in 2004 unions won an estimated £16.2m for their members at employment tribunals. Unfair dismissal awards won by trade unions are more than three times higher than the average in a non-union backed case.

In 2007, unions won a record £330m in compensation for members through legal action. They also won £1m in equal pay claims – an average of £15,000 per member affected.

A barrister who regularly attends tribunal hearings for nurses notices a big difference in the outcomes. "Those who come up before tribunals without union representation rarely get a good outcome. They just don't understand what a huge difference it makes to the presentation of their case." Unions can't work miracles, though, and some are admitting that as hard as they are working to support their members, the volume of demand for help is leaving them overstretched.

Meanwhile unions are attempting to focus their attentions on the private sector. There have been some successes in getting unions recognised in the retail sector – Tesco is considered a particular success – and there has been a rise in union membership, not surprisingly, among people working for high street banks and the big insurance companies. Last month, Barclays staff who belong to Unite stunned their bosses with an emphatic vote – 92% – for an industrial action ballot following the bank's decision to close its final-salary pension scheme.

Despite the worry of losing their jobs, there are still pockets of militancy in some quarters as fear turns to anger. A recent meeting at the TUC between union leaders and HR directors to debate the future of union and employer relations suggests the trade union movement as a whole is moving towards a more conciliatory approach: working with employers to mitigate the effects of job losses, putting more emphasis on helping people to retrain or encouraging voluntary redundancies where possible.

Even so, unions argue employee-employer relations can still be a dirty business and old-school heavyweights epitomised by the likes of RMT general secretary Bob Crow, are needed to restore a bit of balance. Recent revelations of a secret blacklist financed by major companies in the construction industry of allegedly "troublesome" workers is a case in point.

In France, meanwhile, it seems that a more direct approach still pays dividends. While Barclays employees were contemplating whether or not to vote for strike action, a group of sacked workers in south-west France, who had threatened to blow up equipment at their factory if they did not receive compensation, were celebrating the receipt of cheques for £25,000.

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