The Trade Union Movement is dying & needs urgent reform

The trade union movement is, I fear, slowly slipping away and becoming irrelevant to modern day life and I say that as a committed trade unionist. It was taken into a nursing home a few years ago but is now slowly day by day slipping away.

The modern world is all about individual freedoms far more than it is about collectivism. It probably started in the 1980’s and Thatcher probably started it. But the mistake trade unions make is to assume that individual freedoms are always trumped by collectivism – they aren’t and until unions can really grasp this they will continue to be on the slide.

As a Liberal who understands why collective action can be vital for the common good but who also sees why individual freedoms are just if not more vital this is not a concern but a change that has to be addressed by a trade union movement that does not cope with change at all well. Indeed, it is that inability to modernise, until it is too late, that has bedeviled unions for years.

Just cast your mind back to the 1970’s and 80’s, trade unions were headline news day in day out, maybe not always for the right reasons, but they were a force to be reckoned with. Now trade unions are in the news far less often because they are becoming less relevant to the lives of ordinary people.

Trade unions are also in financial difficulty too. Falling membership, feeling that they can’t charge the level of membership fees they would like to/need to and having to merge with other unions are all big issues driven by money worries. My own union, PCS, has even cancelled democracy recently by deferring internal elections to save money.

But why post this piece now? Well it came to mind because of a number of unrelated conversations and newspaper/internet articles that I had read in recent months. They seemed to form a common thread for me and that thread was that UK unions seem to struggle these days to back individual members who are in difficulty. One of those conversations was with my old chum Roy Connell, a committed trade unionist all his working life.

I must have heard and read about half a dozen cases where members with difficulties were not backed by their union and either had to fight their case on their own or were not able fight at all. A common issue seems to be ‘the union will not fund the legal battle’ and this is often down to a risk assessment by union bean counters of how much money a case may cost. Again, the tightness of money means that unions are far more picky these days about which legal cases they will back.

But now it is getting out that unions are effectively backing out of backing their members when they are in trouble can only make folk less inclined to join a union. A vicious circle indeed.

Fighting high profile social justice campaigns is of course bread and butter to trade unions. However, if they are channeling scare resources into this collective/political work whilst leaving their members high and dry when they need legal backing then the wrong balance is surely being struck.

Many of the freedoms that we all take for granted these days (even by those who vote Tory/UKIP) were gained for us by the trade union movement but as society has changed our unions have been slow to react and at times unwilling to react.

It’s no use union executive committees and general secretaries being up for the next internal fight for the Labour Party’s soul whilst their members see them (and the Labour Party) as being out of touch with their world, because I fear that is what’s happening. Collectivism is not now king and maybe it is only on a par with if not behind the individual issues that folks join trade unions for. They want their union to back them when they are in difficulty above all else. Fighting the political battles of the day usually passes them by whether union leaders like it or not.

So the challenge for trade unionists is to reinvent a trade union movement that is very much stuck in a rut and has found the rut a comfortable place to be except for the lack of money flowing into it of course!

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