Back to the Future: Trade Unions in the 21st Century

Despite years of austerity and workplace exploitation, across the economy as a whole most workers are still not trade union members. CHRIS WILSON wonders why and suggests ways to halt the decline.

It is a sad fact that trade union membership has declined in the UK – from 1979 when around 50 per cent of workers belonged to trade unions, to today when about 20 per cent are members.

Just pause on that for a moment. Despite more than a decade of Tory rule, falling living standards, higher inflation, struggles for young people to get on to the housing ladder, and continuing exploitation of people at work, only one in five of people at work belong to a trade union (one in three in Northern Ireland).

It is a figure, partially disguised by higher levels of union membership in the public sector. Almost all teachers are in a union, for example, the highest proportion in any sector. But across the economy as a whole most workers are simply not union members.

What does that say about the practice of trade unions? What does it signal about their priorities, or their democracy, or the language they use? Most importantly, where does it leave advocates of progressive political change if we are failing to make the most basic case for collectivism at work?

To be clear, I owe everything to my trade union membership. It was a union scholarship that transformed my own life chances, taking me first to Ruskin College, then to Cambridge University, then to teacher training, and later to a Masters in theology and ultimately to church ministry.

Like many union activists, I feel a deep personal and emotional bond to the trade union movement, and have, over 40 years, recruited hundreds of workers into membership. I have had (and still have) the privilege of supporting workers when they face challenges at work. I joke with my family that my guiding philosophy is: “Love God, love your neighbour, join a union and vote Labour!”

We need trade unions now, more than ever. Exploitation at work still happens and must be challenged. But trade unions must also modernise. They must reflect the world as it is and not as they wish it to be, even more so as they face the coming and vast challenge of AI.

Class consciousness

Maybe it is useful then to recall how trade unionism developed in Britain. Unlike on the continent of Europe, our trade union movement predated the development of modern political parties.

In many European countries, Christian democrat, Christian socialist, socialist or communist parties set up their own unions, such as the CGT in France. In effect, these were Christian, socialist or communist trade unions. The histories of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the World Organisation of Workers (WOW) and World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) are evidence of significant differences of approach and philosophy.

Here, emerging class consciousness and the practical need for solidarity led first to friendly societies (sometimes bound by secret oaths), and in turn some of these became trade unions. They began as craft unions, uniting around a shared skill or trade, and were emphatically moderate. Nineteenth century trade unions such as the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners (ASC) or the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (ASE) come to mind.

Later, we find a second wave emerging – unions for unskilled and semi-skilled workers, forged in the heated industrial struggles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both the 1926 general strike and the 1984/85 miners’ strike are testament to their more militant and radical approach.

And now we have a third wave of white-collar professional trade unions, many of which emerged in the later decades of the 20th century and are still with us today. It is largely these unions that have been at the forefront of recent industrial action among doctors, nurses, teachers and civil servants, for example.

So three waves – craft, industrial and professional – each with their own culture and language. Each year at the Trade Union Congress, you can pick them out by how they address fellow delegates, whether as ‘sisters and brothers’, ‘comrades’ or ‘colleagues’.

So what comes next? It seems to me trade unions need to rethink the basis of their ‘offer’.

First, they need to recognise that the old industrial organising model has had it. Some trade unions are still locked to the ‘one industry one union’ idea, but this focuses unions on old industries where they have members and not the new emergent technologies where they need them.

It also assumes that workers still have jobs for life; they don’t and often don’t want to. Trade union membership needs to be portable. In some unions (such as mine, the Community Union) it is, but in many it is not.

Similarly, why should workers be expected to join a union that does not reflect their own values? Unions must belong to the workers, not the workers to the unions; they should be member-led, not have led members. We need to rediscover the ethical values of trade unionism, values of care, solidarity, empathy, democracy, understanding and respect for the deep diversity of views their members hold.

Sisters & brothers

Secondly, they should think about language. Personally, as a Christian socialist, talking about my ‘sisters and brothers’ still resonates (a union should be like family), whereas ‘colleague’ is too clinical, and ‘comrade’, while understandable in some left-wing circles, just sounds odd to most folks.

Trade unions are reformist not revolutionary organisations; they are worthy but limited in their goals. Keir Hardie understood this, arguing that political strikes were only justified in two exceptional circumstances – either to defend parliamentary democracy or to avoid an unjustifiable war. I agree on both counts.

Thirdly, unions should think hard about priorities. They can still be ‘schools for socialism’ (as Russian Menshevik leader Julius Martov put it) but they must start where people are and not where they might want them to be. Pay, pensions, grievances and disciplinaries are the bread and butter union concerns; affiliating to a favourite international solidarity group or fighting the culture wars are not.

That is not to say that political questions can’t be raised. They can and should be, but the workplace agenda must drive the political one. Don’t manipulate meetings. Members aren’t stupid, and if they think they are being played they will soon leave.

Finally, trade unions should behave well and, above all, care. Ethical practice is needed in trade unions as well as in politics. Focus on the little wins, gain respect and, if necessary, get a fair hearing to make the case for your union’s political fund or the need to vote Labour.

I would also add, unions should not forget the social element, while taking care not to have a heavy drinking culture. Some members may like it but many really do not. Try to make the union family-friendly, interested in the members’ whole wellbeing, including offering chances for life-long learning. This may even help to encourage the next generation into union activism. As German socialist Eduard Bernstein said, the struggle will always continue, and others will need to step up.

Maybe today’s trade unions can learn something from the old friendly societies. Indeed, the Oddfellows Friendly Society now has more than 300,000 members and is steadily growing, with its strapline, “Making friends, helping people”. Surely, that shows there is still a collectivist appeal out there. If so, it’s time for unions to halt the decline.


The Reverend Chris Wilson serves on the NECs of the Community Union and of the Co-operative Party. He is a church minister and member of Christians on the Left. He writes in a personal capacity.