In traditional anticipation of Valentine’s Day, the shops are full of oversized cards, overpriced chocolates and soppy sentiments. Some embrace these shows of affection; others are reluctant to take part in the annual February love-fest. For The Equality Trust, there’s no holding back. We’ll sing from the rooftops that we ‘Heart Unions’ for helping to 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 even more important in the uncertain context of Brexit. It is welcome that the Government’s Brexit White Paper committed to protecting workers’ existing rights, but in our fast-changing economy we need to ensure that this promise is honoured, and that rights for UK workers keep pace with the rest of Europe.
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. The TUC recently showed that the number of people in insecure work has shot up by more than a quarter over the past five years, making formal worker representation even more vital. 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. If you aren't already a member, this Valentine's Day treat yourself to the voice you deserve and help tackle inequality at the same time: join a union.
Lucy Shaddock, Public Affairs & Campaigns Manager