There are very few political facts that are above contention, but the idea that the unions are in decline is widely accepted. As the Compass pamphlet, Organising to win: a programme for trade union renewal points out, there are now 2.5 million more people in work today than in May 1997. However, over the same period trade union membership has dropped by over a million. Membership, currently at 6.4 million, is half what it was 25 years ago. Discourse around unions is now dominated about how they must revive themselves or whether their decline is inevitable in a post-industrial and generally affluent era.
The title of this blog, Raising Lazarus, is taken from a Fabian pamphlet (618) on the topic of the future of organised labour. David Coats makes the compelling case that union strategy must change. He rightly identifies that within British unionism the left is within the ascendancy. Unfortunately though, the rhetoric of class struggle does little to galvanise the young white collar professional or the single mum struggling to make ends meet. The inability of the unions to expand in this economically prosperous time signifies quite simply that something is wrong.
This morning a ballot paper for the proposed merger between Amicus and TGWU came through my door. I am unconvinced by the case for the merger, partly because as I identified above the real causes of union decline must be addressed and I am yet to be convinced that this merger will make the situation any better. A picture of Richard Angell, former chair of the Birmingham University Labour Club and former Guild President, was one of nine in a montage on the front of the winter issue of the Amicus magazine. He is quoted as saying: “if there was one big union which could cover all those areas (of the workforce) students could keep their membership as they move and that can only be beneficial.” If I am to vote in a ballot that is probably already decided then I would probably have to agree with him. However, Richard also points out that “young people are the future and the ‘new union’ needs to seize this opportunity.”
Whether the unions will also be around in the future is yet to be determined.
Posted by Tom Marley, BULS Vice-chair and Treasurer