The Guardian newspaper’s Work supplement raised an interesting question a couple of weeks ago: “Are unions back in fashion?”
It used new figures on the membership of British trade unions to argue that more workers are joining them to protect their rights in the face of the recession.
And the latest annual report by the Certification Officer, who collates information on the trade unions among other things, shows the relative health of the unions in the face of the economic storm.
The figures are mostly based on returns from trade unions at the end of 2007 because of the timeframe in which the report is collated.
It shows that membership of trade unions has increased by 30,000 to over 7,600,000 since its last report.
This is less than the high point of 13.2 million in 1979, but it shows that the unions retain their mass membership and potential power.
Over 27 percent of workers are in a union.
The Usdaw shop workers’ union, the GMB general workers’ union and the teachers’ NASUWT union all saw their membership increase by over 10,000.
The RMT, Unison and UCU also saw rises in membership.
In many areas unions are growing by reaching out to previously under-represented sections of the workforce.
For instance, Unison reports that more than 12,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 27 joined it in the first six months of this year.
That is up from 1,500 in the same period last year.
However, Unite, Britain’s biggest union, has seen a big drop in its membership.
Its annual returns at the end of 2008 showed that it had lost over 300,000 members—dropping from 1.95 million to 1.63 million—since the end of 2007.
It claims that this is mainly down to a “tidying-up exercise” that removed from its figures former members who either left the union or died.
But a spokesperson confirmed that it lost around 30,000 members because of the recession.
Yet even when this fall is taken into account, as it will be in next year’s Certification Officer’s report, the potential power of the unions remains strong.
There has clearly been a decline in the number of official strikes in 2009 so far, compared to 2008.
Many media commentators will undoubtedly use this to say that trade unions and working class struggle are finished.
But the official figures only tell part of the story. The highpoints of class struggle this year—the wildcat strikes by thousands of construction workers, and the occupations of the Visteon, Vestas and Prisme factories—will not appear in the statistics.
These workers have shown the tactics that are needed to win. People have to respond to attacks quickly and unofficially.
Unorganised workers can lead the way—those at Vestas and Prisme were not members of a union before their occupations.
The Guardian claims that unions “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’.”
To counteract this it says that the “union movement is moving towards a conciliatory approach—working with employers to mitigate the effects of job losses, putting more emphasis on helping people to retrain or encouraging voluntary redundancies”.
It is only right that unions should be more representative of the diverse workforce that exists today. But the latter approach to union-employer relations is a disaster for all workers.
Unfortunately too many union leaders who are tied to the New Labour government, have followed this route. They have failed to lead a fight against the effects of the recession.
Workers will need more “old-style confrontations” with the bosses to ensure that we don’t pay the price for the crisis with job cuts, low pay, closed factories and cuts in services.
Time after time, workers report that more people join unions when they are taking action.
We should fight for union leaders to support and build struggle. But it will take grassroots organisation to take those struggles forward.
A fighback based on the militant tactics employed by construction workers and those at Vestas and Visteon can revitalise the union movement—and stop the bosses’ and government’s offensive that will only intensify as the recession deepens.