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If you think employment and trade union rights in the UK are ‘gold-plated’, think again

Published date
Union organisers still face obstacles including hostile employers, union-busting and blacklisting.

In the UK every worker deserves a great job. But we all know that this is far from being the case.

Workplaces which recognise unions, in which there is dialogue about how work is organised and how the company can improve, offer many benefits to workers.

Research shows that in these workplaces, employees are better paid and productivity is higher. Having union health and safety reps also halves the workplace accident rate.

And we know that those workplaces are likely to have stronger education and training policies, more flexible working, better equality strategies and outcomes, and are likely to have effective mechanisms for solving problems at work. So, what’s not to like?

Union membership has increased, but density is still low

The good news is that union membership increased across all countries within the UK in 2017 and 2018.

The bad news here in London, the South East and the East of England (LESE), is that only half of workplaces have a union presence. Union density - that is the proportion of employees who are a member of a union - is low: 18.2% in London and the South East, 19.5% in the East of England.

This does mean that there are nearly 2 million workers in LESE who have made the positive decision to join a union. In fact, there are more union members in this corner of England than all of France. But there are more than 6 million workers in workplaces with no union presence at all. Those people have no-one to support and advise them at work.

Modern rights for modern workers

A world-class economy must have world-class businesses, world-class jobs and world-class industrial relations, based upon good employment and trade union rights, and effective dialogue at work. But for many working people in LESE, that kind of respect and voice at work is a distant fantasy. So, what are the obstacles?

PCS (Public and Commercial Service) members working at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have held numerous strike days since May. One of the demands from these low-paid workers is simply that their employer, the outsourcing company Interserve, recognises their union for negotiation purposes. Is that too much to ask?

GMB members at Amazon UK are also struggling for recognition of their chosen union at its warehouses. But the fiercely anti-union global giant refuses access for union organisers. Bizarrely, the only way to get inside might be to try and book a customer tour of one of its so called ‘fulfilment centres’. Is this reasonable behaviour from a company that makes billions in profits?

BFAWU (Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union) members employed by McDonald’s went on strike last week, with one of their objectives being the recognition of their union. Earlier that week, I joined a protest at a McDonald’s branch where a young person was facing disciplinary action for daring to give another worker a union membership form. I will not tell you the location of the branch, because it could be any branch: the McDonald’s Crew Member Handbook forbids ‘solicitation’ and ‘distribution’ of any membership information on McDonald’s premises in almost all circumstances. Should we accept this kind of behaviour in a modern civilised society?

Employers are still blacklisting union organisers

Blacklisting is expressly illegal in the UK. But thousands of union members, and workers who have raised health and safety and other concerns, including many on large projects in LESE, have been blacklisted by employers such as major construction companies. The criminal activity of these employers was exposed and punished.

The right to form and join trade unions, to collectively bargain and to vote for and take part in industrial action, are universal human rights. The union movement’s core values are truth, justice, fairness, freedom, equality and solidarity. Yet some employers are hostile to union organising, adopting ‘union-busting’ tactics. And successive governments have let them. We want to bring employment relations into the modern age.

A better way is possible

Changes that would help make this a reality include:

  • Employment and trade union rights for all from the first day of work.
  • Banning zero-hours contracts and fake self-employment.
  • Ensuring basic rights of access for trade union organisers to workplaces.
  • Union recognition for every worker.
  • Sectoral collective bargaining to guarantee minimum standards.

The best way to improve pay, working conditions, equality outcomes and safety at work is collective bargaining and union representation.

If you are not in a union, join one. And if you are in a union, organise to change the world of work for the better.

Ban zero-hours contracts Too many workers are being denied job security, sick pay and holiday pay - and insecure work is out of control.