Weakening of Union power and rising Wealth Inequality is no coincidence.
Trade unions have been demonized, demoralised and weakened by successive governments. In a time of immense economic inequality, Trade Union Congress leader, Frances O’Grady, is correct when saying “never has a strong, responsible trade union movement been so needed.”
We live in an age of plentiful resources, yet these resources aren’t being shared, instead the super-rich are able to hoard wealth. In the past, unions metered this by bartering for higher wages and using their power to achieve change that benefited the working and middle class, such as equal pay, maternity pay, and health and safety laws.
The graph below shows the historic trade union membership (blue) compared with the percentage of national earnings going to the top 1% (red). Hover to see true data points.
Ever since Thatcher’s assault on unions, which led to fewer trade union members, the percentage of national earnings going to the one percent has increased dramatically – at the expense of everybody else. Across 16 OECD countries between 1966 and 1994, they note that “as trade union membership declined, inequality increased”. This is a worldwide trend.
May’s Conservative Party claim to be the ‘party of workers’. If they were, they would support trade unions wholeheartedly. Unions lead to workplace-democratisation and help shift the power from corporations to workers. Instead, Thatcher’s government went on a crusade against unions, one which following Tory leaders have supported. The Guardian claims, the Coalition Government introduced “the biggest crackdown on trade union rights for 30 years.”
Labour have close ties to the trade union movement. Yet, New Labour were complicit in the continued destruction of the trade union movement. Labour didn’t repeal the anti-union laws of the Tories. Unions still have to run a complex ballot of their members before announcing a strike and must give an advance notice of seven days of any strike action to employers. A complete ban on secondary action has remained in place. Not even ‘Red Ed’, who won the Labour leadership due to the trade union vote, convinced the public of the need for strong trade unions. In fact, Miliband weakened the power of unions within Labour.
Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership shows a desire for change from Britain’s left. They want a more progressive economic policy, honesty and stronger trade unions. While a recent Ipsos MORI poll showed 77% of the public see trade unions as “essential to protect workers’ interests”, more people believe that trade unions have “too much power” than don’t. Worryingly for the trade union movement, the majority (53%) of Britons believe that “most trade unions are controlled by extremists and militants”. More people believe that the Labour Party “should not be so closely linked to the trade unions” than disagree. Compared with results over the past decade, these results should be worrying to Trade Unions, and therefore to workers across Britain.
However, without support from his own party or the media, Corbyn is unlikely to win a General Election. The media has smeared pro-union Labour leaders for decades. 95% of tabloid’s editorials in runup to 2015 General Election were anti-Labour, many vilified Miliband. There’s no reason for them to change now. Journalists have little power to change this smearing of the left.
As Owen Jones writes in ‘The Establishment – and how they got away with it’, “in the media, management has such sweeping powers because of the smashing of trade unions, who used to be able to take a stand”. He points to unionised printers refusing to print a smear
Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers. The front page featured Scargill, “raising his hand in a manner that could be deviously twisted into a Nazi salute”, with the headline “Mine Fuhrer”. The Murdoch empire could not tolerate this and the print unions were crushed after striking printworkers were sacked in 1986. Jones believes that this “led to a “dramatic change in the newsroom, where the balance of power shifted markedly in favour of bosses.”
We need a change in the interaction between unions, the government and employers. This must start with the repeal of the Trade Union Act of 1984 and 2016, which placed the most restrictive regulation on trade unions in Europe. The freedoms of unions must be in line with European counterparts, so that unions can freely argue for ideas that will benefit working people and reduce inequality, this will be harder as we leave the European Court of Human Rights.
There must be an increase of employee representation on company boards, something Theresa May promised before backtracking. Expanding the share of the economy made up of mutual, cooperative and employee-owned companies is a priority, as more democratic companies tend to have smaller pay ratios amongst staff.
I was recently lucky enough to interview Leanne Wood, the leader of Plaid Cymru. When she was asked if “strengthened trade unions are the solution to our wealth inequality”, she said that trade unions “have a part to play”. She said “organisations which previously battled for good terms and conditions for workers – trade unions – have been weakened. Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, passed legislation which took powers from trade unions and as a result they’ve become very, very weak. It’s very difficult to see how trade unions can protect jobs and raise pay levels under the current situation.” She continued by saying that “if there was more strength and powers for the trade unions then it would be more difficult for exploitative employers to undercut wages.”
However, Leanne Wood has hope on a Welsh level for the future of trade unions. The Plaid Cymru leader explained that “there are some powers that the Assembly has over trade unions, but there’s a dispute over some of those as well. Employment law is held by Westminster, but there are certain terms and conditions that could be determined by the Assembly. Interestingly, there is a push from the Assembly to have more powers over trade unions. There is trade union legislation going through Westminster at the moment, which the Assembly Government is trying to seek exemptions from for Wales. So, this is going to be an interesting debate and battle coming over where those powers lie. Watch this space!”
We must stand up for our rights in the workplace by joining unions ourselves. If we unionise, we have a chance of guaranteeing employment rights, reducing national inequality and showing the government that we want change. It’s time to create a labour movement which has the social and political influence to minimise inequality and protect our rights as workers.
Visit www.tuc.org.uk for more information.