Trade unions are back after a long absence

At 21 years old, Alfie already knows a fair bit about working life on the bottom rungs of the UK economy. He has worked in a seatbelt factory (“you’re just there to look after the machines basically”), a toilet paper factory and a popular coffee shop chain. But it never occurred to him to join a trade union until the pandemic hit.

Worried about the café’s policies on infection control, furlough and sick pay, he and a group of other staff began to share stories on Facebook. They set up a petition on a digital platform that connects workers and helps them run campaigns. It now has more than 37,000 signatures. Alfie has joined the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, which helped with the campaign.

“Thanks to the pandemic I think there’s going to be a massive resurgence in the idea of unions because so many people, especially young people, have realised how vulnerable they are to the whim of their employer,” he says. “They feel they haven’t got any power.”

If he is right, it would mean the reversal of a trend that has lasted more than 30 years and spanned most of the developed world. Since 1985, trade union membership has halved on average across OECD countries, while coverage of collective agreements signed at the national, sector or company level has declined by a third.

There is still huge variety between countries in terms of the importance and popularity of unions (4.7 per cent of employees in Estonia are members, 93 per cent in Iceland). But the majority of places have experienced a decline. Nowhere is this more evident than among the young. In 1995, one in five 20- to 25-year-olds in the UK were union members; now it is about one in 10.

There are now some reasons for trade unionists to be optimistic. When Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, told people to go back to work after the first lockdown, the website that helps people find a trade union to join had more hits than ever before. Organise, the worker campaign platform, had fewer than 100,000 members this time last year; now it has more than 1m.

In an Amazon warehouse in Alabama, meanwhile, almost 6,000 workers are voting this month on whether to unionise. The impetus for the union drive is less about pay and more about the way workers are paced by robots and monitored by algorithms. It is a totemic battle for the US’s beleaguered unions, which want to show they have a role in the 21st-century economy.

The politics have shifted in some countries, too. Joe Biden, US president, has warned Amazon not to intimidate workers in Alabama, and has already edged institutions such as the National Labor Relations Board in a more pro-union direction. New Zealand, which deregulated and de-unionised its labour market in the 1990s, is now planning a system where workers and employers will bargain to put a floor on wages and conditions across certain sectors or occupations.

This reflects a quiet change in economic orthodoxy. As Alan Manning, economics professor at the London School of Economics, says: “It’s incredibly popular among young economists now to think the balance of power between labour and capital has gone too far.” The OECD, hardly a hotbed of socialism, argues that collective bargaining “should be mobilised to help workers and companies face the transition and ensure an inclusive and prosperous future of work”. The organisation reasons that while important, laws and regulations are not as responsive as good industrial relations, particularly with regards to the deployment of automation or electronic surveillance.

The question is whether unions themselves are fit for the future. Some have adapted well to the changing needs of workers. Germany’s IG Metall, for example, has opened up to self-employed members and collaborated with Swedish white-collar union Unionen to help workers on “crowd labour” platforms. But others are stuck in the past, dominated by structures and work cultures from the 1970s that leave them with no high ground from which to criticise private-sector employers.

GMB, one of the UK’s big unions, commissioned an investigation by a lawyer last year into allegations of sexual harassment. The report said “bullying, misogyny, cronyism and sexual harassment are endemic” in the union, which was run like a series of “fiefdoms”. GMB, which published the investigation in full, says it will “face up to and tackle” the problems.

Platforms such as Organise and new start-up unions like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, unencumbered by old structures, have found ways to reach people that traditional unions have struggled to recruit, such as Deliveroo riders and other gig workers. IWGB has won some big legal victories, but its day-to-day work involves helping app workers with practical problems such as being deactivated with no explanation. While some traditional unions have sought to collaborate and learn from these new arrivals, others have treated them with suspicion or denial. “We’re just going to be eaten like Netflix ate Blockbuster if we don’t shake it up,” one trade unionist said.

The pandemic has prompted workers like Alfie to raise their voices and their sights. It means that unions have the best opportunity in decades to renew themselves and their place in the economy. Whether or not they seize it will be up to them.

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