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The trade union movement is growing - and gaining big wins for our members.

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An article in the Financial Times this week attracted a fair amount of attention from within the trade union movement. Here’s our response.

Firstly, let me make clear, it is obvious that the article was clearly pro-union and worker voice, and that is to be welcomed. It covered a range of issues from the historical decline in union membership, a changing political climate (at least in the US), the plight of young workers and those working for companies such as Amazon.

In attempting to chart union revival, the article drew a very clear demarcation between what it called ‘traditional’ unions and online platforms and small start-up unions.

There is little doubt that traditional unions face many challenges – not the least of which is learning in maximising the benefits of digital - and unions (and the TUC) are up for a debate about how they can adapt themselves to a new world of work and take advantage of innovation to scale up their efforts in organising and mobilising workers.  

What I did think was missing from the piece was some reflection on the scale of the work going on inside the traditional unions and the TUC so to fill that gap, here are some of the things that those ‘traditional’ unions are doing to address the challenges we face.

Firstly, the UK trade union movement is GROWING! Over the last 3 years net membership has increased by over 200,000. The vast majority of those new members have been recruited by 'traditional' unions affiliated to the TUC. In the last year around 300,000 people have joined a trade union, most having done so online.

During the Coronavirus pandemic the trade union movement has reasserted its importance. We secured the furlough scheme and have been fighting to make sure workplaces are safe for key workers.

Unions and the TUC are creating digital innovation too. Two years ago, the TUC set up the Digital Lab to help unions become digital first organisations. With and for our unions, it's doing really great work. You can read all about the Digital Lab here.

We have built an online petition and campaign platform – Megaphone. It’s run by the TUC for and with unions. And we don't use it to "sell' potential new member leads to trade unions - but to amplify campaigns to support members across the country.

Because of the pandemic, the TUC and unions have moved our entire union rep’s education programme online. The TUC alone trained over 1,000 reps on formal courses (our unions trained many more) - 18,000 attended webinars and over 40,000 used online short courses.

And of course, unions have been using digital to meet with and mobilise members. For example, the National Education Union has held Zoom calls with hundreds of thousands of members and CWU have used Facebook to hold meetings with tens of thousands of their members.

As well as this, unions are still doing the basics of winning better pay.

For example, PCS have recently negotiated a fantastic pay rise (13% over three years) for members in HMRC. 

Unions are campaigning to make sure that entire industries survive the pandemic. Like Prospect/BECTU doing all they can to save theatres, venues, cinemas and live events - or Unite trying to save jobs in the hospitality sector.

And yes, unions are winning for workers in the gig economy. The GMB victory over Uber means drivers will no longer be classified as self-employed, but are workers entitled to workers’ rights including holiday pay, a guaranteed minimum wage and breaks.

Trade unions across all sectors of the economy know that our movement faces many challenges and that we have to earn the right to survive. Every TUC affiliate last year signed up to our ‘Organising Pledge’. By signing the pledge unions committed themselves to:

  • Increasing the number of workers aged under 30 in our movement 
  • Enthusing thousands of activists from all backgrounds to become new workplace reps, offering them training within the first six months and training every new rep within their first year. 
  • Working co-operatively as TUC unions to bring trade unionism into new and growing sectors 
  • Working jointly to eliminate insecure employment, including agreeing and pushing common bargaining agendas across sectors 
  • Modernising how unions operate, organise and communicate for a digital-first era. 
  • Driving up union membership in workplaces where we already have recognition agreements with employers 

We all want a bigger, broader more diverse trade union movement. We want to recruit and support a new generation of younger members and turn them into a new generation of activists too. There's much to do but much is already being done, successfully, by ‘traditional’ trade unions. I am yet to see a suitable and sustainable alternative to what they offer.

Don't write off 'traditional' unions yet. Reports of our death (and disappearance) have been exaggerated before.


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