As the Trades Union Congress (TUC) celebrates its 150th anniversary, it is an opportunity to reflect on the challenges it faces as the peak-level representative body of unions in Britain. The TUC’s strapline is ‘changing the world of work for good’. Unlike many straplines, that one neatly captures some of the challenges facing the organisation. The TUC has the role of bringing together 49 unions representing members in sectors as diverse as transport, health, and finance. Almost inevitably, uniting such a broad membership base is challenging. Bringing them together to facilitate change is even more so. And changing anything as broad as ‘the world of work’ is nearly impossible. Yet it is an important and admirable objective and one that the organisation has consistently championed. Looking to the future, some long-standing challenges to achieving those objectives remain, and new ones are emerging.
A common misunderstanding about TUC leaders is that they exercise some kind of direct control over affiliate unions. It would be hard to find a structure less likely to produce that outcome. Rather, the role is one of co-ordination and representation on common issues. TUC policy is decided through structures where affiliates propose, debate and vote on motions rather than instructions to affiliates to adopt particular positions. This opens opportunities for leadership around common issues and it is here that the TUC is probably most successful in its campaign activities. A good example was the speedy and high-profile mobilisation of both legal and campaign resources in responses to the Trade Union Act 2016.
Similarly, the TUC has shown considerable leadership over the past 20 years in encouraging affiliate unions to strengthen their recruitment and organising activities. This kind of activity can fall by the wayside in the day-to-day routines of bargaining and representing members. So providing space and support to develop activities to promote long-term organising objectives has been crucial. These initiatives seek to build expertise and engagement around the labour movement towards common objectives that can be difficult for individual unions to invest in. In each case, leadership has been demonstrated by launching campaigns, providing access to training and deploying the considerable weight of research evidence and campaign staff to link together and support initiatives that were often happening in a patchy way.
One of the advantages of having a single peak level organisation representing unions is that there is a manifest effort to build common interest across sectors and occupations. In other countries, it is common for unions to be divided in their representational bodies between sectors or political positions. Having a single representative body brings strength in unity but also means that the issues on which such a diverse group of unions can find a common voice can be limited.
A central challenge is to unite what can be very diverse interests, namely, between different unions, and also between union members and workers more generally. Building alliances between unions can require considerable effort to emphasise the long-term interests of all unions in building stronger workplace rights that cover all workers. Similarly, the TUC is in the advantageous position to focus on building solidarities between union members and workers more generally. With union membership hovering at around only 23% of the workforce, it is crucially important that there is someone taking the lead on speaking to and for workers more generally.
The union movement also faces the challenge that changes to the structure of the labour market bring in terms of effective organising and representation. Encouraging affiliate unions to move beyond their existing membership boundaries to organise and recruit new groups is crucially important. Unions in Britain have faced fundamental changes in the labour market meaning that membership is increasingly concentrated in the public sector where density is over 50%, as compared with around 13% in the – far larger – private sector. One issue resulting directly from the dominance of public trade unionism is that large scale job losses in the public sector have directly led to a decline in union density as union members have either moved out of the workforce or into non-union jobs. Rebuilding membership and activism in that context is inevitably difficult and will require long-term action and co-ordination.
Changing labour markets also present the difficulty that some groups of workers are far more likely than others to find themselves in sectors where unions have low levels of membership. A clear manifestation of that is that young workers are disproportionately working in the private sector in areas such as hospitality and retail which have very low rates of unionisation. As a result, it is increasingly rare for young people to experience union representation in their early working lives. The challenges of organising in those sectors which comprise often small, geographically-dispersed workplaces is huge and requires significant investment of time, money and expertise. In addition, we know that workers who engage with unions early in their working lives are far more likely to continue to be involved. So those challenges risk structuring future patterns of exclusion from unions which may be difficult to overcome in future.
Addressing these challenges requires strategic planning and concerted action. The TUC is often better positioned than individual unions to lead initiatives that require fundamental rethinking of objectives or that go beyond core workplace concerns. Examples such as initiatives to train large numbers of organisers across the union movement show that as a peak level representative body, the TUC can create space and practical support to facilitate action.
Central to the activities of the TUC in addressing some of these challenges has been a focus on building solidarities between very diverse groups of workers. The TUC is well positioned to contribute to wider debates and campaigns about the world of work and has successfully done so through, for example, identifying the challenges of recruiting and representing young workers as one of the three priority areas for 2018. Those campaigns aim to push affiliate unions to co-ordinate activity that is already taking place and to learn from each other as they attempt to reach out both to young workers in unionised workplaces, and to young workers in parts of the labour market that are much more difficult to organise. Importantly, part of the approach has been to emphasise that the issues of concern to a lot of young workers go far beyond the workplace. Integrating issues housing and mental health helps reach out beyond existing workplace representation and leads to a far wider debate about the effects of poor quality work on other aspects of workers’ lives which can be difficult for individual unions to lead.
That said, there is scope to push this approach further. There is good evidence that the quality of jobs is reducing in many sectors and occupations and there can be a tendency in public debate to see job quality as a race to the bottom: ‘why should they have good pensions, when we don’t?’ Paying attention to building solidarities not only between unions, but between unionised and un-unionised workers is an important role for the TUC and is necessary to rebuilding a narrative that labour is valued and should be rewarded accordingly.
Of course, one of the major changes since 2015 has been a re-emphasis of the important links between the union movement and Labour. Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn, there has been a reinvigorated enthusiasm for acknowledgement of the role the union movement plays in funding the Party and broad questions about the policy direction. What is clear is that workers’ rights are central to the current political agenda within the Labour Party and there is considerable opportunity to influence the future direction of policy. There is undoubtedly a role for the TUC in co-ordinating a practical policy response that is more than simply a ‘wish list’, and the likely pause before the next general election gives time to work through a feasible program to reform labour standards in Britain.
There is also evidence of growing concern in wider public discourse about poor working conditions in areas of the ‘gig economy’ and a general downgrading of wages, terms and conditions, particularly since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007. This provides space for many commentators, including the TUC and individual unions, to intervene in debates about the future of work and the regulation of labour standards across the economy as part of a wider public discourse of resistance and discontent.
The challenges facing the TUC and the labour movement in general are considerable, but not insurmountable. Building solidarities within the labour movement and across the workforce in general is a top priority. Further investment in organising and recruitment is also crucial in order to address the challenges of changing membership patterns associated with structural changes in the labour market. And there are good reasons to be optimistic. There has been a change in the political direction, at least within the Labour Party, and the TUC and affiliate unions are well positioned to take advantage of what seems to be a growing public dissatisfaction with deteriorating working conditions. In that context, it is clear there will continue to be an important role for a co-ordinated voice highlighting both problems at work and future solutions.
Melanie Simms is Professor of Work and Employment at the University of Glasgow.