In a week that has seen the largest railway workers’ strike for 30 years and with industrial action threatened by groups as diverse as teachers, criminal barristers and doctors, we ask: are trade unions set to remake the industrial landscape in the UK?
What is a trade union?
Trade unions are voluntary associations of workers set up to protect and advance their interests. They are regulated by law and fulfil various statutory functions if ‘recognised’ by an employer for collective bargaining purposes. Collective bargaining is where an employer negotiates with a union over terms and conditions (such as pay, hours and holidays) for all or part of the workforce.
Why do strikes happen?
Strikes are relatively rare now. When negotiations break down or a union’s demands are refused, the union may call a strike by asking the workforce to refuse to work. It could also call for other industrial action, like an overtime ban. There is no ‘right to strike’ as such, though there is some legal protection for strikers. The UK has relatively restrictive laws on industrial action, introduced mainly in the 1980s but continued since, requiring the balloting of members before any action is taken and detailed notices to be given to employers.
How many trade union members are there?
Total membership was 6.44 million in 2021, about one in four workers, down from a peak of one in two workers in 1979. Nowadays, they are more common in larger companies and in public administration, education and health. They are also to be found in industry sectors such as energy, transport, distribution, retail and some manufacturing. Back in the 1970s, unions were powerful, and strikes were much more common. Their membership had a different profile compared to today and then their membership numbers decreased because of a decline in heavy industries (like mining and steel-working), changes in industrial processes (like printing) and because, some might say, of a general change in the political and economic climate.
Are unions successful?
Measured in crude pay terms, arguably yes. The Trades Union Congress (or TUC, a body that speaks for all trade unions) published an analysis earlier this year that showed unionised workers to be paid on average five percent more than other similar workers so that they could earn up to £60,000 more than non-union members over their working lives.
Are they all equally successful?
No. Many union members are in low-paid sectors like social care whereas others, like London Underground train drivers, do much better. This is usually because of different levels of bargaining power: a Tube strike, for instance, causes massive disruption. Arguably the most successful union of all is the Professional Footballers’ Association, some of whose members earn £100,000 a week!
What else do unions do?
Some of the most notable and long-lasting achievements of trade unions are the expansion of legal rights for workers. They do this either by pressing for legislative changes (typically enacted by the Labour Party, which was originally established by the union movement) or by taking cases through the courts on behalf of their members. Free legal representation is one of the most commonly cited reasons why people join trade unions and it is a valuable benefit. The law often impedes what unions can do. A notable recent example is the instant dismissal by P&O Ferries of 800 of its staff and their replacement by agency workers, which caused a national outcry. The union was left powerless to stop it (although it is reported to be taking legal action for various apparent failings by P&O). That is why the TUC is now calling for legal reform to prevent this from happening again.
Will unions expand?
Success breeds success so, if groups of workers are seen to achieve their demands, that is usually good for trade union recruitment. If unions manage to get inflation-beating pay increases this year, this will increase their appeal. Recruitment in workplaces where there is already union membership is relatively easy. More challenging for unions is to break into sectors where they have little or no presence. The greatest challenge of all is probably the ’gig economy’, which is modelled on freelancers being connected to customers via digital platforms, like Uber and Deliveroo.
Have unions had any success in the gig economy?
There has been some. Last year, the GMB union took Uber to the Supreme Court, which squashed what the union called ‘bogus self-employment’ with the effect that Uber drivers are no longer classed as freelancers but as workers entitled to rights such as the minimum wage, pension, and holidays. And the GMB has now entered into a voluntary arrangement with Deliveroo to ensure some basic rights, praising it as a world-first. But this has been controversial: a new union, the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain, which sought greater rights, called it a cynical PR move. Here we see the clash of the more traditional unions and, perhaps, new upstarts seeking to fill a gap.
Are there any other developments to look out for?
It is sometimes said that where the United States goes today, Britain often follows tomorrow. If so, watch out for new employer-specific unions formed by their employees using the statutory recognition procedure. Union membership in both countries is currently spread across industry sectors or even the whole economy. But, in an interesting recent development, a team of warehouse workers in New York voted to force their employer, retail giant Amazon, to recognise their new ‘Amazon Labor Union’ after they objected to various labour practices. Success is uneven, however: in Alabama, the union didn't succeed against America’s second largest employer, though that result has been challenged.
If you require advice about unions or industrial relations, please contact the Employment department at 3CS or your usual 3CS contact.