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The big interview with trade union leaders

In an exclusive interview, Dave Prentis, General Secretary of UNISON, Dave Ward, General Secretary of CWU and John Hannett, General Secretary of Usdaw, explain why they think union membership is more important than ever.

Image representing How relevant are trade unions in 2017?

How relevant are trade unions in 2017?


DP: Unions have never been more important than they are now. We’ve seen the rise of unfettered capitalism, we’re seeing insecurity in work, zero hour contracts, and many of the rights that we achieved through the EU are now up for grabs as we exit Europe. We need to make sure that we protect workers’ employment rights.

When we hear entrepreneurs talking about deregulation, much of it means they’re getting rid of workers’ rights. The unions have got a major part to play in ensuring that those rights are maintained and that we move forward into a society that’s based on fairness and equality.

JH: All the evidence shows that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the workplace at the moment, in terms of job security and in terms of the restructuring and change taking place. Trade unions are extremely important in regulating the employment contract between the employer and the employees. The union movement is the only organisation that can play a significant part in articulating employees’ concerns.

DW: If you look at this country at the moment, with Brexit, the NHS crisis, the housing crisis, the railways and the lack of investment in infrastructure, what it tells me is that a whole generation of people are missing out on the things that we took for granted many years ago – a decent job with a proper contract, an affordable home, and knowing that you were going to be looked after either in the health service or through your pension. So, it’s never been more crucial for unions to reassert our importance and our values at the workplace and in society.


Image representing What more can be done to engage people with unions?

What more can be done to engage people with unions?


DW: It’s time for us to reassert union values. All the evidence shows that workers who are in union-organised jobs will get a higher level of pay and better overall working terms and conditions. We’ve got to work collectively, across the TUC affiliates, to get more people into the union movement.

To do this, we’ve got to find a way to connect with people more in the world of work. We need to make the concept of a new deal for workers in this country the number one political issue of our times. From that, we will be able to unite people and make a real, lasting change.

JH: Our membership online is growing all the time, people are making a conscious choice to sign up but unfortunately in many non-union businesses you can’t get to speak to the employees. Our studies show that if we do speak to them, they join, so we need to find new ways to reach out to them.

The potential is in the private sector – currently only 14% of the private sector workforce is in unions – so the potential is enormous. We need to create a strategy for how to approach them, making sure the offer is right, and using social networks to engage with people. Union membership won’t happen by accident – we’ve got to get organised and plan for it.

DP: What we’re finding is that large workplaces are now being broken up. When UNISON was formed in 1993, from three older unions, our members were employed in very big offices – for example, local authorities used to provide all the services to the local community. Now, authorities like Manchester City Council deal with over 200 employers. The work has been fragmented and a lot of it privatised.

We recruit 150,000 people every year but we’re losing a similar number per year because of these public service job losses. Despite this, people are joining us. They’re joining online and what we aim to do is offer them a service, offer them benefits and make the union attractive to them.


Image representing Do you think unions are fairly represented in the British media?

Do you think unions are fairly represented in the British media?


DP: Trade unions are always portrayed by the media as organisations that are involved in disputes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The overwhelming majority of trade union members have never taken strike action and have had no need to contemplate it.

JH: Trade unions are problem solvers and often the media portray us as problem causers. The vast majority of work that unions do is putting the fires out, resolving problems. But the media aren’t necessarily interested in that kind of day-to-day work.

It can be biased on the basis that if you have a tube strike the media report on it because it affects people trying to get through London. But if you look at the overall work that unions do every day – dealing with accidents at work, grievances, and the settlements we do with companies – when a problem arises the union representative plays a key role in finding a resolution, but that doesn’t get coverage. Sadly, the media aren’t attracted to those normal, good news stories.

DW: The media, in my experience, always start from quite an aggressive position against trade unions. That’s the nature of the media that’s owned by people who are against what we do; they come from the right of politics. The big media barons are never going to be supportive of trade unions and unfortunately they’ve got a lot of power at the moment. But, I’m genuinely optimistic that eventually people will see that trade unions are a force for good and necessary to counter some of these bigger forces that are driving inequality, making it difficult for people in the world of work.


Image representing What challenges lie ahead for the union movement?

What challenges lie ahead for the union movement?


DP: Twenty years ago, even low paid workers had secure jobs – annual leave arrangements, good sick pay agreements, and so on – but more and more that’s being taken away. We’ve got examples of teaching assistants having their pay cut by 25% and they’re already low paid workers. It’s getting more difficult out there.

At the top of our society the wealthy are doing very well but the people at the bottom are paying the price. We’ve got to ensure people have decent work, not just jobs. We need to ensure they have a living wage – one that they can live on, not just exist – so we can move forward to a fairer society and not one that’s less understanding of diversity.

DW: We’ve got to tackle insecure employment – it’s rife across this country. Unions have to work together to change that, to create jobs with higher pay and to revalue work. We need to place a higher value on workers that support society going forward, and we need to place a lower value on some of the traditional ways businesses have operated – like thinking that business leaders are the only ones that can solve problems.

The union movement in the UK needs a proper debate now about what model of trade unionism is going to work in the future. I don’t think we should compromise what we are, in the sense that we stand on our collective strength – we need to expand that – and try to find a way of saying to young people, who perhaps don’t come from the same traditions, that this is a good movement for you and you can help to shape it.

JH: We need to be proactive, not just reactive. How do we meet the challenge of productivity? How do we engage with employers? How do we grow? The biggest challenge is that we have to engage with employers, employers’ organisations and the politicians about what a modern workplace strategy would be. Unions can be part of that solution if we’re included and engaged in the conversation.

Unions need to be forward looking and not resting on our laurels. We also have to be a bit more radical in our approach to all of these challenges.


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