The decline of British trade unions, and their diminished influence upon working people in the country, finds its ‘roots’ in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Government in 1979.
A key aspect of Thatcher’s approach was her determination to weaken collective rights and bargaining powers of workers, and strengthen the rights of the individual. To this day, the United Kingdom, in common with many other English-speaking countries, highly prizes the latter in comparison with some collective relationships, particularly within the workplace.
Before all trade unionists in the room cry ‘foul’ of Thatcher’s approach, the late 1970s saw the rise in the belief that the unions had become ‘all too powerful’. In September 1979 some 80 per cent of British people agreed with this view. Quite surprisingly, even 69 per cent of trade union members in the late 1970s agreed that unions had too much power and were over-dominant.
Union decline into the 1980s was ‘turbocharged’ in two areas particularly. Firstly, most employer/employee pay setting was determined unilaterally between company management and the individual employee. Where collective bargaining on behalf of employees did still exist, worker unrest – and the resulting strikes in the 1980s particularly – further weakened the case for unions in the eyes of the public.
Secondly, Government policy – in particular measures to tackle an expanding debt burden and modernise where able the delivery of high-quality public services – saw a considerable reduction in public sector expenditure in favour of new private sector delivery models; what we today commonly term the ‘privatisation agenda’.
Most trade unionists, whether in the 1970s or today, worked in the public sector, and so the resulting ongoing reduction of union membership completely followed a course consistent with the continued shrinking by Government of public sector expenditure.
At its peak in the late 1970s, union membership in the United Kingdom stood at about 13.2 million members. As things stand today, numbers are just over 6.6 million.
There is, however, a not insignificant resurgence taking place in the United Kingdom, which in the last four years has seen Trade Union membership increase by over 400,000 members from 6.2 million members in 2017.
Whilst membership numbers can never compete with the considerable membership across Europe still today, an upsurge of over 400,000 workers in the country prepared to pay a monthly subscription in the region of £15-20 to a union is a significant development. What could possibly be happening here?
There are, I feel, two key societal changes which will I am sure continue to now grow union membership in the years ahead.
Firstly, fairness – what I call ‘fair capitalism’. With the divide between the poorest and richest growing faster than ever in the United Kingdom and sadly also across Europe too, every working Briton wishes now more than ever for a society which not only rewards hard work with decent pay and good working conditions, but also understands that ‘fat cat’ salaries and extortionate company bonuses must be urgently relegated to a thing of the past.
Workers wish for a country which, whilst encouraging aspiration and rewarding hard work with excellent pay, understands that public services are essential and must be properly funded. To do this, government must fairly tax workers and corporate organisations too (even those based overseas), at a level which best facilitates strong public services free at the point of delivery and accessible to all.
Fairness, accountability, and transparency in the workplace will no doubt support the further growth of trade union membership in the years ahead.
Secondly, a national resetting of the relationship between employee and employer – what I call the ‘upgrading’ to a truly ‘Modern Trade Union’. A union of workers, who understand that only economic growth provides prosperity for all.
In order to achieve this mutually beneficial productivity and growth, a strong workers and employers union is now required. Instead of the Mexican stand-off between the workers and owners we have seen on occasion in the past, and which in places has so negatively impacted our communities, employers and workers must come together as equals with a shared vision of fairness and productivity, to be delivered together.
This is our vision at Union Blue. Our modern, centre-right trade union will help drive and support stronger relationships and outcomes between the employer and employee. We will stand up for those workers on the very lowest incomes, often those in the ‘gig’ economy – and we won’t be afraid to call out the Government when we feel they are getting things wrong.
Where able, and in cooperation with our colleagues in other unions, we aim to improve employment rights, raise productivity and support employee satisfaction.
Conservatives have a proud history for standing up for all hard-working people. From Robert Peel to Boris Johnson, and each of our Prime Ministers in-between, we have improved the lives of workers and their families.
Trade unions have no doubt played a pivotal part in these improvements too, and Union Blue will continue this important work from our centre right standpoint now and into the future. Please do visit our website and join us if you would like to support our vision.