On the surface, yesterday’s trade union membership statistics appeared to give a welcome boost to the labour movement, with a 19,000 increase in membership last year.
Yet behind this modest growth there is a bigger trend that is challenging for trade unions and the success of the economy. So while the number of union members may have risen this year, so too has the number of people in employment, with nearly 400,000 more people in work than a year ago. The result is that the proportion of workers in a union is now at its lowest since modern records began in 1995, standing at 23.2 per cent.
These figures should be troubling for unions and employers. Britain has a productivity problem and with the challenges of Brexit, this is likely to get worse unless we can create a new bargain for the economy.
Unions like the one I lead, Prospect, the unions for specialists and professionals, helped buck the trend by increasing our membership this year. This has been driven by a relentless focus on renewing our offer so that it is relevant to members and the issues they face at work. However, we can’t be complacent. If those of us that lead the trade union movement take the view that everything is now rosy in the garden, it would be a significant dereliction of our duty.
There are two challenges we face. Firstly, unions themselves need to change the way we do things. We need to be better at engaging working people, in particular young workers, and to become more savvy about digital and helping members to develop their careers. Subscribing to a trade union must become as simple, easy and compelling as subscribing to service like Netflix.
The second challenge is one shared with employers: productivity. Working with think tank Respublica we are calling for a new bargain for trade unions, particularly in the private sector. The driver for this is the evidence that our low productivity economy will only be improved by both giving people more voice at work and by driving up skills. Trade unions can have an important role to play in this, as high productivity economies like Germany and Sweden show.
Our new bargain is one where all sides recognise they must give ground to secure our post-Brexit economic future. Employers would recognise the benefits of more voice for their workforce to make improvements to their businesses and also to help recruit and retain talent. And in return give trade unions fair access to talk to their staff about joining.
Even senior Government ministers like Philip Hammond are now recognising that British capitalism may need a reboot. So we want to see government put larger companies under an obligation to establish frameworks to give people a voice at work.
In turn trade unions have to recognise workers in the private sector will only join when they know that their union is committed to their company making a profit as they are. Alongside this unions must recognise that their primary concern must always be speaking up for their members at work - not running the country or any political party by proxy.
Ultimately any boost in trade union membership is welcome given the years of decline since 1979. However, a step change in the approach of unions and the government will be needed if we are to have the levels of real voice at work that are vital to create productive, happy workplaces in future.