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FIST Red

The falling level unemployment – which has now been sustained for over two years – and the record number of people in work – should be good news for the trade unions. But for the unions it has been the wrong sort of job creation.

For instance there has been a huge increase in the number of self employed – you can hardly negotiate with yourself.

Public sector workers are almost four times as likely to be union members as those in the private sector. Yet while the public sector has been shrinking it is the private sector that has been providing the new jobs.

So last year trade union membership actually fell slightly. But the workforce increased. Even if we discount the self employed and just look at employees the ratio of trade unionists fell from 26 per cent in 2012 to 25.6 per cent last year. In 2010 it was 26.6 per cent.

This has been a long terms decline. It is worth noting that it has continued since Margaret Thatcher left Downing Street. In 1990 there were 37.8 per cent of employees who were union members.

There is a bit of a “data lag” between the returns sent in to the Certification Officer and the tally for total union membership published by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

But some of the latest returns indicate the trend continuing.

Last year the Unite the Union Len McCluskey told Andrew Neil – in an interview for the Sunday Politics on November 3rd – that his union’s membership was increasing. However their annual return for the year ending 31/12/13 shows it fell by another 20,000.

UNISON is also down another 20,000.

The GMB are up – but by only 4,000.

The National Union of Teachers membership is slightly down by under a thousand – but the number of teachers employed in the UK is up.

The Communications Workers Union membership level is fractionally down.

The only big union that I noticed had a reasonable membership increase was USDAW – up about 8,000. That is one of the less militant unions.

Remember that over the period in question, last year, there were nearly a million more people in jobs. Yet even under those circumstances it is likely that total union membership will turn out to have fallen.

Under these circumstances shouldn’t the unions actually be reflecting on improving the services they provide to their members? Such as negotiating discounts for private health insurance.

Should the unions look at providing better value for money by reducing their membership subs – ending their donations to the Labour Party would be one saving that comes to mind. Another economy could be in the fat cat six figure salaries of the union bosses.

Lower subs might seem a challenge at the time when state subsidies for the unions are being reduced. I saw a report on Guido Fawkes this week that the number of taxpayer funded union officials in the civil service has fallen from 200 to 20 since November 2011.

However operating independently, rather than as a branch of the state, gives an opportunity for a cultural change in the labour movement.

Union leaders must become the servants rather than the masters of their members. Bullying demands for politically motivated strikes are unlikely to attract new recruits. There are plenty of opportunities for sensible dialogue with employers. There is scope for common sense improvement in any workplace that are of mutual benefit to the owners and the workforce – efforts to promote flexible working is just one example.

The unions need to consider what practical benefits they have to offer. Otherwise their slow decline will continue.

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