There is a very real prospect of a change of government at the next general election, which must take place sometime before 24 January 2025, and probably in autumn or winter 2024. This will mean that the UK might soon have a government that is more sympathetic to trade unions than the present, Conservative, administration.
Why are trade unions so much in the news?
Resurgent inflation in 2022 meant that UK living standards suffered their greatest fall since records began, squeezing household incomes and impelling calls for wages to rise to catch up with rising prices. At the same time, labour shortages meant that the balance of industrial power shifted in favour of workers. In the public sector, teachers, health workers, and civil servants pressed their demands for higher pay. In the private sector, transport staff are still locked into a long-running dispute over pay and conditions. Leading these disputes were their trade unions who called for industrial action, resulting in the largest number of working days lost to strikes for many years.
Where do unions operate?
In principle, anywhere they can across the workforce with very few legal exceptions. As the incidence of this winter’s strikes suggests, trade unions are concentrated in the public sector, where membership is at 50% of the workforce, compared with just 13% in the private sector. Overall, membership has increased slightly in recent years to 6.44 million, but there has been a steady general decline from a peak of 13.2 million in 1979, despite the fact that the workforce has grown significantly over that time.
Why would an election matter?
Because almost everyone expects the Labour Party led by Keir Starmer, now enjoying a huge lead in opinion polls, to win it. The Labour Party is close to the trade union movement. Trade unions established the party over a century ago to represent the interests of workers. Unions fund the Labour Party.
How does Labour’s leadership view trade unions?
Despite their closeness, with some ambivalence. Older people remember the late 1970s and a ‘winter of discontent’ under a Labour government, when strikes brought the country to a virtual halt. To win votes at the next election Labour cannot be seen to be controlled by the unions. The last Labour government under Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown (1997 - 2010) knew this and it was criticised by many on the political Left for not overturning what they saw as ‘anti-union’ laws. Strict controls on unions and restrictive laws on industrial action had been introduced by the Conservative government in the 1980s, led by Margaret Thatcher. Even so, in 2000, Blair brought in for the first time a system of statutory recognition of trade unions for collective bargaining purposes (see below). Collective bargaining is where employers negotiate over pay and conditions with a union representing staff.
How about the current Conservative government?
Years after the Thatcher reforms, the current Conservative government, now in power for nearly 13 years, tightened the law further so that certain balloting requirements before a strike were made even more stringent. And now, incensed by the disruption caused by an outbreak of strikes across the public sector this winter over pay, the government has introduced a parliamentary bill designed to ensure that minimum service levels are maintained in the event of such strikes in the future.
Will the Labour Party repeal these laws if and when it gains power?
That is a question that Starmer will want to dodge between now and the election. But he will come under pressure from union leaders not only to reverse the latest ‘anti-union’ laws but also some of the Thatcher reforms in the 1980s. They will want to steer Labour in a Leftwards direction, away from the centrist industrial relations policy it had under Blair. Whether he will go along with this is one of the great unanswered questions in politics today. That said, it would be reasonable to suppose that there may be a limited rolling-back of some anti-union laws but that Starmer will adopt Blair’s overall approach.
Will trade unions gain more power generally?
Laws are one thing, political and industrial power another. The unions will not regain the power and influence they had in the 1970s when they were frequent visitors to Downing Street and helped to shape economic policy. That said, the recent winter has shown that many workers see their interests as being protected more effectively by union membership and participation. Although we have yet to see how the disputes have affected membership levels, numbers usually increase during disputes. More members generally mean more power (see below).
Are unions entering new sectors?
Yes, there are some signs of trade unionism advancing into fresh areas of the economy. General unions (as opposed to sectoral ones) like the GMB and Unite are keen to recruit members working for specific employers like Amazon. Unions have successfully forced recognition against Amazon in the USA, where President Biden has made acceptance of unions a condition of giving federal subsidies to clean energy firms. Unions are also operating in less conventional areas like the ‘gig economy’, where working conditions are often poor. Harsh working conditions often drive employees to join unions and ‘organise’ with their colleagues.
What will this mean for my industry?
If unions continue to grow in national prominence, then they may gain some influence over economic and industrial policy and that remains to be seen. But what will affect industries most directly is the extent of trade union membership. Your firm might be in a sector that has relatively high union density, like transport or utilities. If so, your industrial landscape may look rather different compared with sectors with relatively low density, like hospitality and food services.
Why does the number of union members matter?
In higher-density sectors, collective bargaining is more common, so that terms and conditions are more often agreed with unions rather than individuals. It is also more likely that a trade union officer will represent employees at disciplinary and grievance proceedings. Typically, workers in unionised firms are paid higher wages and have better terms and conditions.
What if I don't want to recognise a union?
You don't have to but, even if you don’t, once a critical number of union members within a workplace is reached, their union could force a ballot among all staff to be recognised under the statutory recognition procedure introduced by the Blair government (see above). Sometimes these battles for the votes of employees are bitterly fought, with both sides desperately trying to persuade the workforce that their way represents their best interests. If the union wins, it means that, even if you do not want to negotiate with a trade union, you will be forced to bargain with them over pay, hours and holidays. For this reason, employers will often consult lawyers who are familiar with the statutory recognition process to advise on whether and how the process can be stopped.
How 3CS can help
If you have an issue with trade unions, please contact John Clinch of our Employment team. John was a trade union lawyer for 14 years.