Have trade unions lost their purpose?

First, let’s delve into what trade unions are and what purpose they serve. Back in the early days of the industrial revolution, industries were owned by the few truly rich and powerful. Because of this overwhelming control of the employment market by the employers, workers desperate for work were often exploited. In other words, many people wanted jobs, the rich and the powerful controlled the jobs that were available, so could afford to pay less to workers desperate for paid work. This situation can still be observed in many parts of the developing and underdeveloped world (such as India and China), where trade unions hardly exist.

Enter the trade unions. The labour market grouped together to form a collective bargaining entity. No longer can employers say “If you don’t like the low pay/poor working conditions, I’ll give the job to someone who wants it.” When pay or working conditions are unsatisfactory for even a few individuals, the entire workforce could gang together and refuse to work. This caused the employer to lose productivity and profitability. It is thus in the employers’ interests to keep the unions happy in order to maintain productivity. Individual employees were also thusly incentivised to join trade unions, for personal protections as well as for the greater benefit of the whole workforce. There is now a semblance of power balance between the employer who controls the capital and the employees who control the labour. To this end, the influence and power of trade unions is a GOOD thing.

Fast forward to modern-day Britain. If you work in public services (even if your employers is a private company, such as with train operators), you very likely will have joined a trade union. If you work in the private sector, your chances of being part of a union are very slim indeed, unless you are part of a long-established industry. The causes of this are wide and varied. This could be because employment in the public sector has gained a reputation for being steady long-term employment, whilst those desiring shorter more mobile employment opportunities favour the private sector, with this pattern of job-hopping doing away with the necessity of trade unions. In the private sector, the employment market is as much controlled by the upwardly mobile workforce as by those with the capital to employ. Additionally, the private sector is so widespread and diverse that most people employed in the private sector have no relevant union to turn to.

The result of this is that the most prominent and active of trade unions can be found in the public services sector – unions are almost all but extinct in the private sector. When these unions take strike action due to disputes with their employer, the ones they hurt are the public, NOT their employer. Their actual employers will not have their profit margins damaged in any way.

Let us remind ourselves:
1) What are the trade unions for?
Answer: Trade unions exist to protect the interests of the workers

2) Who are the trade unions protecting the workers from?
Answer: Trade unions protect workers from abuses and unfair practices by employers

3) How do trade unions protect workers?
Answer: Trade unions protect workers by collective bargaining power through facilitating industrial action which hurt the employer.

(I am assuming that the above three points are non-controversial. If they are, please let me know and give me feedback on how you would challenge them.)

What happens when RMT strikes? Large parts of public transport goes out of service, hurting the public and businesses whose workers depend on public transport. Train operators will hardly have their profits hurt in any way, since the majority of their income from regular travellers are primarily from season ticket holders, and other travels are simply just deferred to another date.
What happens when NUT strikes? School pupils miss out on being taught by their teachers. Schools and councils carry on as before, since there is no profit or productivity margin for them to worry about.
What happens when FBU strikes? The public miss out on critical professional fire brigades services, having to rely instead on provisional services provided by the army with their frequently outdated equipment. As above, although councils and governments do get a bad name, but they certainly won’t have any profit margins to concern them.
Many NHS workers don’t even dare strike because they know first and foremost that the ones who lose out immediately are the patients – lives are literally at stake in front of these workers.

These examples demonstrate that when unions take industrial action, they first and foremost lose public support. Any employers’ response is primarily to appease the public, which often amounts to not more than lip service. In the meantime, public support for union activity diminishes with every strike action they take. It is all too easy for employers to play the unions off against the public, casting them as the ‘greedy bad guys’ to the public eye. This has already happened to the RMT, especially in light of the militant industrial actions instigated by the late Bob Crow. Thankfully trade unions still maintain some semblance of public support due to the long history of public support it has in this country. However, I fear that this is unsustainable in the longer run. How long will trade unions retain public support when they continue to hit the public instead of employers?

Furthermore, what of the private sector? What happens when Amazon underpays the unskilled labour force working in their packing warehouses? What of the Costa and Starbucks baristas who work long stressful hours serving demanding and ungrateful clientele? Some of the highest paid city jobs are also the most demanding and least ethical of working environments – many of their employment contracts explicitly do not recognise industrial action. If you want people to work shorter hours and simultaneously curb the highest paid jobs – this is the industry in which trade unions should be the most active. Sadly, these highly competitive industries are also where employees are the most self-serving… but that’s another story.

What’s the future for trade unions then? The way the majority of trade unions now function, I see no future for them. They have lost their way. No longer are they fighting abusive employment practices – they are now fighting out of self-interest only. The future I see for trade unions is to go back to their grassroots – how did they come about and why. They need to regain their original purpose, to combat abusive employment practices, to stand up for the employee who is poorly treated, and to level the power balance between those who own capital and those who own labour.

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Author: Hoong-Wai

I'm a sinner. I have an interest in economics, philosophy, politics, science, sociology, technology, theology (in alphabetical order). I care about truth and justice. I can be a contrarian.

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