A trade union is an organisation made up of members who are workers. It brings people together to make their lives better: to win better pay, to ensure safer and more inclusive workplaces, and to improve access to skills and training. Trade unionists look out for each other, and when a group of workers act and speak together, their employer has to listen.
Anyone who has a job, or even anyone looking for one, should be in a union. Unions negotiate with employers on pay and conditions. They fight to protect the workforce when major changes, such as large-scale job losses, are proposed. They represent individual members at disciplinary and grievance hearings. On average, union members receive higher pay than non-members. They are also likely to get better sickness and pension benefits, more paid holiday, and more control over things like shifts and working hours.
Trade unionism has a long and deep history. In 1834 a group of agricultural workers in the Dorset village of Tolpuddle – James Brine, James Hammett, George Loveless, James Loveless, John Standfield and Thomas Standfield – formed the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers in response to decreasing wages. Collectively, they demanded ten shillings a week. They were punished for their activities and charged with taking an illegal oath. All six men were transported to the penal colonies. But their real ‘crime ’, in the eyes of the ruling class, and in particular for their landed employers, was their attempt to form a trade union. In response, over 800,000 people signed a petition demanding the release of the abused heroes. The Tolpuddle Martyrs were among the pioneers of the early trade union and workers’ rights movements, and we celebrate them each year with a festival in their Dorset village.
Such bravery resonates still. In more recent times, another group of workers said loud and clear that enough was enough and joined together to campaign for their rights. Sick of having their card tips taken by their employer, front-of-house staff at the high street restaurant chain TGI Fridays decided they would form a trade union in order to defend their rights at work. They were soon joined by staff at the pub chain Wetherspoons and by McDonald’s workers demanding an end to zero-hour contracts, low pay and youth rates. Together they recruited, organised, mobilised – and walked out. They became trade unionists in order to win their collective rights. And while they didn’t achieve all their demands, they won significant improvements.
The precarious nature of much of today’s work often makes it difficult for those in insecure, zero-hour jobs to see what unions might do for them. But trade unionism is not just about pay and conditions. It’s about diversity, putting equality at work and in society front and centre stage; it’s about community, politics, internationalism and much more. I believe strongly in rebuilding the traditional, if at present weakened, links between trade unions and communities. Being a trade unionist is as much a political as it is an industrial role. This is why the historic links between the labour movement and the Labour Party matter.
What history tells us is that progress for working people has only ever been achieved by the collective self-empowerment of organised labour, not through the accumulation of individual rights alone, however worthy they may be.
What would a world without unions look like?
Are unions still relevant in a changing world, in which the robots are coming for so many of our good jobs, and may even go for what’s left of the rest? Our history shows that unions are the barometers of such changes. We see these kinds of development at their earliest stages. We hear our members’ anecdotes as events happen. We do the research to uncover what is really going on. Without us, workplaces today would be dangerous, deadly and largely devoid of decent jobs. Unregulated, low-paid, insecure, zero-hour contract and agency jobs with long hours would be practically all that remained. Yes, such jobs now dominate our service sector economy, but without unions they would exist with none of the rights and protections either already won for workers, or currently being fought for.
What are the victories won by unions that have made our working lives safer and fairer?
Karl Marx, in his great critique of how the capitalist system works, Capital, wrote about the struggle for the ‘normal working day’ that brought about the Factory Acts. He described how capital, over centuries, had extended the working day not just to its natural limit, but beyond (so that even the definitions of day and night became confused). Many of the reforms to post-industrial-revolution working conditions and workers’ rights were achieved by the struggle of the emerging labour movement. They were secured through industrial disputes, or by working with progressive Labour governments, or by exploiting the opportunities the law provides to fight injustices. Antiunion laws throughout history have left employers holding most of the cards, but the law has also been a weapon in our armoury that can help give workers a voice.
Trade unions and their lawyers have pursued most of the test cases that established and developed the laws around health and safety at work, both before and since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act. For example, it was unions who brought the first ever successful case for asbestos- related-disease compensation in the UK to the House of Lords in 1972, and they have been involved in every significant case around the law of asbestos compensation since then. Unions have supported hundreds of workers and their families who have developed asbestos-related diseases as a result of exposure at work or in childhood.
That is not all. Without both the industrial and political work undertaken by trade unions, there would be no laws governing maximum working hours, no working at-height regulations, no personal protective equipment, no lifting and manual handling regulations, no sick pay, no right to paid rest breaks. I could go on, and as dry as some of these terms may seem – and as much as they might bring about howls of ‘health and safety gone mad’ from the Daily Mail – they make all our working lives safer.
Our legal battles have also protected employment rights: equal pay, the national minimum wage, agency workers’ rights, pension rights, family friendly policies, maternity and paternity leave, holiday pay, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to time off work for trade union activities, the right to be accompanied by a trade union rep to grievance and disciplinary hearings. These are all rights that if you were starting work today, you’d simply take for granted (though not in the gig economy).
For example, in 2017 the Supreme Court confirmed that the coalition Tory–Liberal Democrat government was wrong to deny working people access to justice by imposing fees for employment tribunals (ET) in 2010. It was a case pursued by Unison but was a victory for all workers, and particularly for equality and for the restoration of a semblance of balance in the workplace. Tribunal fees required anyone who felt they had been dealt an injustice at work to pay up to £1,200 to make a claim. The result was a shocking drop in sex, race and disability discrimination claims: nearly 80 per cent fewer ET cases were brought over three years. This allowed discrimination at work to flourish unchecked – a gift to bad bosses from the political party that claims to be the friend of working people. And even now the Ministry of Justice is considering how to bring fees back.
Elsewhere, establishing in the courts that Uber drivers are ‘workers’, and therefore entitled to basic rights such as the minimum wage, holiday pay, sick pay and parental leave, was a fantastic victory for the GMB. Unite, meanwhile, won a landmark legal victory forcing employers to include voluntary overtime in holiday pay calculations. These are ground-breaking successes that undoubtedly level the playing field a little, but they do not end exploitative employment practices on their own. Nor do they, in isolation, empower workers or provide collective or equal rights. Legal action doesn’t replace the work that unions must do, organising in workplaces to drive out unfairness and injustice.
Twice we successfully defeated a High Court challenge by Argos intended to quash our industrial action, begun to start the fight back against the restrictions placed on unions by the Trade Union Act. That action did not get rid of the Act, but it did demonstrate how trade union legal strategies have an essential part to play in our continued fight on behalf of our members, and how our legal work is now more integrated with our industrial activity than it ever has been.
Pursuing these strategies also won compensation of over £10 million for blacklisted workers in the building industry. Obviously, no sum can overcome the injustice done to those workers, whose lives were wrecked by firms who denied them work on account of their trade unionism and by the police and security services, who we now know, as a result of the ‘spycops’ inquiry, were also involved in the blacklisting of workers on an industrial scale. However, securing compensation has been a big step towards righting that wrong. Unions continue to fight for such victims, but only a separate public inquiry will reveal the full truth of the scandal.
The Durham Miners’ Gala each July is a highlight of my year. It is a wonderful, vibrant celebration of trade union values and community spirit. It also provides the opportunity to survey not just the devastation of our former mining communities, but the widespread deindustrialisation of cities and towns throughout the country. This is the story of our movement from the 1980s to today, and the impact it has had on trade unions, and the cumulative effect of that on the economy and nature of work, is why we should be trade unionists. As well as having a legal role, the unions have a political responsibility to participate in debates over the state of the economy and the nation.
Strikes during the 1970s, especially in the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978/9, were, and still are, blamed for wrecking productivity. Thatcher famously claimed that unions were ‘the enemy within’, that ‘monopoly trade unions have immense potential for destruction and can inflict severe damage and hardship’. And she went on to crush the strikes by the miners, the dockers and others.
The real enemy to productivity and growth, however, is not the trade unions but short-termism in the British economy. Instead of looking long term to sustained growth, ten or twenty years down the line, and including unions as key economic players in that, we are saddled with anti-union, anti-worker laws that have made us the worst protected workforce in Western Europe. As a result, consecutive administrations have focused on how quickly they can extract wealth; an approach that has put hedge fund managers in the driving seat and driven the country to the edge of ruin.
The destruction of British manufacturing, in particular heavy industry, began in the 1980s with Thatcher’s neoliberal economics and her determination to break the unions, alongside Ronald Reagan’s deregulating assault on industry and the creation of ‘liberal’ conditions for finance to operate on a more global stage. We tend to forget that Thatcher went for the steel industry first, before going after the miners, the printers and then the dockers. The first national strike by steel workers for more than fifty years took place in 1980, over pay and the threat of plant closures at the loss-making nationalised industry. Although a deal was struck after fourteen weeks, the government appointed Ian MacGregor as British Steel chairman to drive through a savage rationalisation programme. By the end of the year, three major steelworks had closed with the loss of 20,000 jobs. Between 1979 and 1981, total employment in the industry halved. In 1988, when British Steel was profitable again, it was swiftly sold off as part of Thatcher’s privatisation programme.
The Tories’ successive waves of anti-union legislation began with the 1980 Employment Act, followed by the 1982 Employment Act, the Trade Union Act 1984, the Public Order Act 1986 and a further Employment Act in 1988. The measures included restricting the right to strike, making secondary action unlawful, criminalising some types of picketing, ending the closed shop, undercutting worker protections, and reducing the capacity of trade unions to organise and to conduct their own business in line with their own rules.
Thatcher may have started this, but successive governments allowed labour, as a commodity, to be discounted in the drive towards a flexible, service sector economy.
New Labour refused to recognise the economic impact of not freeing the unions from Thatcher’s shackles. Tony Blair remained true to his disgraceful boast that under his government anti-union legislation would continue to be the most restrictive in Europe. ‘We will still have the most restrictive union laws in the Western world, and it will stay that way’, he told the Sun during the 1997 election campaign. It is shameful that neither the Blair nor Brown governments recognised that the only way to deliver more and better public services was with the help of a vibrant manufacturing sector.
The impact? One million manufacturing jobs were lost under New Labour.
Trade unions are the largest voluntary organisations in our society, and yet we are cut out of the most vital conversation of our times by the government. Theresa May’s claim, during her marathon House of Commons session defending her doomed Brexit deal, that the unions had been involved throughout the process was quite simply wrong. The calls she made to union leaders just days before her deal was overwhelmingly defeated were the first time she’d ever spoken to us, though some of us did then meet her and talks continued with her government for a while, for all they achieved. May’s contact with us was two-and-a-half years too late.
Automation should offer the prospect of shorter working weeks, with no loss of pay, or become the gateway to a nationwide programme of re-skilling and up-skilling for existing workers. It should create new training and high-quality apprenticeship schemes for jobs in programming and operating the robots, and in the development of digital humans like Cora. We need the government to take the lead in setting up a Future of Automation Commission, involving unions, employers, researchers and academics in finding workable solutions to automation, seeking to understand both the opportunities it offers and the threats it poses.
- this is an edited excerpt from Why You Should Be A Trade Unionist by Len McCluskey.[book-strip index="1" style="buy"]
In this short and accessible book, Len McCluskey, General Secretary of Unite the Union, presents the case for joining a trade union. Drawing on anecdotes from his own long involvement in unions, he looks at the history of trade unions, what they do and how they give a voice to working people, as democratic organisations.
Being a trade unionist means putting equality at work and in society front and centre, fighting for an end to discrimination, and to inequality in wages and power.