Wednesday, 10 February, 2016

Unions have been in the news recently, with the Trade Union Bill currently in Parliament, and the national ‘heartunions’ campaign this week. We heart unions because they help prevent our divided nation from becoming even more unequal.

Evidence shows that countries with a greater proportion of the labour force in unions have lower levels of inequality. Currently, around a quarter of UK employees are union members, with higher membership among those with medium skill levels and higher pay levels than non-union workers.  Unions increase wages for the poorest 35%, while decreasing them for the top 20%, a direct reduction in inequality.

In the US, the decline in union membership over the last 50 years has been mirrored by an increasing share of income accruing to the richest 10% at the expense of everybody else, a worrying power imbalance that has consequences for both democracy and the economy. Figures on share of national income can feel a bit remote from most people’s daily lives, but for ordinary workers here in the UK, the value of a boosted pay packet couldn’t feel more real. Unions can have a huge impact on improving pay. In the private sector, for example, union members earn on average 8% more than non-union members, while for young workers, this union premium can be as much as 39%.

Our unions are much maligned, but the reality is that they have been one of the more effective forces against rising inequality. This makes the role of unions something that all parties should be considering carefully, given that politicians across the spectrum agree inequality is a problem. Minister for the Cabinet Office Matthew Hancock recently said “The brute facts of inequality demand a strong and united response.” It is a welcome statement, but one at odds with the Government’s Trade Union Bill, which is a threat to organised labour, and in turn, a threat to our chances of becoming a more equal country.

We often see risible attempts to pit unions against the wider public, but over three quarters of people agree that “Trade unions are essential to protect workers' interests,” a figure that has changed remarkably little over the past 40 years. Effective unions are an essential link that helps ensure employers and employees are working in productive partnership, and holds bosses to account when they fail to keep up their side of the bargain.

Trade unions are, in essence, Britain’s biggest social movement. We should be proud of them and all their members for both their historical and current work, including helping to end child labour; securing a national minimum wage; fighting for the right to weekends, parental leave and paid holiday; challenging discrimination, and stemming the tide of inequality in the workplace. Without them, who else?

Lucy Shaddock, Policy & Campaigns Officer