The role of unions today

Last months saw two important anniversaries pass for the Labour party – neither received the attention they might have done. 27 February is an important day for Labour people. This year, the date marks 106 years since a group of working-class representatives and trade union organisations met together to vote for the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee. Their aim was to build a parliamentary vehicle that could fight for the interests of working people in the House of Commons.

The February 1900 conference was organised after a motion was passed by the Trade Union Congress. According to records, trade unions constituted around a third of the delegates and agreed to sponsor parliamentary candidates under the Labour banner. Therefore, it is not a cliché to suggest that trade unions played a key part in the founding of Labour.

A century or so on, it is great to see that so many people celebrated the role unions continue to play, with tens of thousands participating in Heart Unions week. Unions have an important role; indeed, a critical role for many working people across the United Kingdom. Yet unions – and their members – are so often taken for granted. Some people suggest that their major battles have been won, or that their role has declined since the battles of the Thatcher years. What is the role of unions today?

Trade union achievements

Let us first turn to a different anniversary, as there is another which may have slipped you by. On 12 February 1906 the Labour Representation Group, by then 29 members of parliament strong, met formally for the first time as the parliamentary Labour party. It established rules for voting. It elected Keir Hardie as its leader. It approved the adoption of a new name: the Labour party.

If you look down the list of attendees, names such as Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald are etched into the fabric of Labour’s history, alongside the countless volunteers who campaigned for their election. But the journey to get the Labour party into government officially started in a small room of the House of Commons 100 years ago. If you want to read the minutes, you can do so by visiting the People’s History Museum in Manchester.

To be sure, in 1906 the world was a different place. There were two world wars and the Cold War yet to come. Britain had an empire. There was no European Union, instead discord. There was no computer with which to write an article and no website on which to post it.

Back then, trade unions campaigned without the use of the internet or a telephone service but it did not restrict them from holding meetings and electing officials. They formed larger groupings, built a Trades Union Congress and democratically passed motions on behalf of millions of working people. They campaigned on issues such as better workers’ rights, fair pensions, equality for women, school meals for underfed children and universal suffrage. Any of this sound familiar?

If we are to be satisfied that rights have been won in each of these areas – most of them hard fought for – it is at the same time depressing to note that trade unions are still required to campaign for better working conditions, fairer pensions, gender equality, children’s rights and giving our young people the right to vote. Clearly, trade unions remain of utmost importance to the lives of millions of people here and overseas.

The future of trade unions

Every once in a while, some seek to put the link between the Labour party and the trade unions comes under scrutiny. We should be clear that the link between Labour and the unions is significant and that not only should it be retained but it should be strengthened.

Unions are of enormous value to the Labour party. They not only support and campaign for Labour candidates across the UK, they are a rich source for identifying issues, undertaking research and developing policy. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader illustrated the value of grassroots campaigning for change. There are no better grassroots campaigners in the land than union members.

Discounting the wartime years of national coalitions, Labour has been in government for one third of the last 100 years. During those periods a National Health Service was formed, a national minimum wage was established and a Human Rights Act was passed – alongside many other victories for workers and those concerned with equal rights. Each victory began as a trade union campaign before being implemented by a Labour government.

Trade unions have been of even greater importance during periods of Conservative and Liberal government, helping to prevent the rolling back of the welfare state. This has often required them to be bold and take difficult standpoints. Even now, their importance is perversely recognised by the Tories as they attack union rights under the auspices of the trade union bill.

But there have been shortcomings. While trade unions have been effective in reacting to developments such as zero-hours contracts and junior doctors’ pay, they have lagged far behind in their offering to workers a post-industrial economy. Although a misleading term – the UK remains a hotbed of industrial activity – there is no doubt that the digitisation of work is occurring, is happening quick and is leading to a more dynamic economy.

Unfortunately, it is an economy in which workers are increasingly underrepresented. Workers today face different problems to those who work for multinational companies or public sector organisations. These workers are at the forefront of innovation but often do not have a collective voice.

The Tories often bait trade unions by highlighting the historic fall in union membership. But if Labour’s membership can double in the last 12 months, why can unions not rebuild their membership bases? There is no reason why there cannot be a rebirth of the role unions play in our working lives. But there has to be the ambition to make this happen.

In the coming years, unions should reach out to self-employed people and small business workers – people historically unrepresented in the union movement. They should support people who work on purely digital platforms, an area of the economy which will surely grow substantially. If trade unions will not represent these people, who will? This is the role unions should fulfil.

As this month of anniversaries passes, we should recognise the momentous role unions have played in the development of the country we live in today. We should thank them for what they have achieved. But we should support them by asking them to rekindle the fire and be bold again in their ambitions. Because ultimately, history suggests, we need them.