The UK job market has arguably never been so precarious, with the rise of zero-hours contracts, the gig economy and the increasing privatisation of public services, yet the number of people joining trade unions has been in steady decline in recent years.
We sat down with some grassroots union members to find out why they think the role of the trade unions is more important than ever and why people should sign up.
The panel (from L-R):
Anne Eglan, team leader for UNISONdirect and health and safety rep and steward for Unite in Acts at UIA
Karen Kendrick, desk-based engineer at Openreach, seconded to CWU’s North West Region as assistant regional secretary amongst other roles at branch and national level
Watty Gaffney, NHS nurse and Scotland LGBT co-convenor at UNISON
Kath Shackell, senior claims handler at UIA and senior steward for Unite in Acts at UIA
What do you think the benefits are of being in a union?
Watty: It’s a community of like-minded people who want to improve workers’ pay and benefits and promote fairness and equality. It’s a proven fact that workers in unionised industries are better paid, have more holidays and work in safer environments.
Anne: Security is the most important thing; it’s an insurance policy, with extra perks.
Kath: When workers work together the employer tends to listen. The union gives workers a voice. It also offers support and guidance for members with work-related issues and more.
Karen: The more people that we have as members of trade unions, the greater our bargaining power. The employers will listen to us. In the CWU, we give a lot of advice and support to our members on a personal basis and meet regularly with employer managers. We can represent members, supporting their cases, and giving them constant information about issues that are going on in the workplace.
How do trade unions support workers?
Kath: They help workers through all sorts of problems. The union will work with the employers, for example negotiating better working conditions and salaries. They also ensure health and safety in the workplace is taken seriously.
We have insurance for home and for our car, but unfortunately people don’t think they need an insurance for their job. But your job does need to be looked after to make sure you’re treated right and getting everything that you should be.
Karen: One of the things the CWU is known for is giving a personal service – one-on-one support. The CWU members are part of a union that helps bring about real change. We’ve got all our equality strands – black, disabled, women, LGBT – and a really active retired members’ and young workers’ section.
Watty: Most unions also have a range of added benefits; preferential deals with companies, such as UIA, where members can save money on everyday costs like insurance and utilities.
Unions do so much more, too. Twenty years ago, LGBT workers would never have come out in the workplace and, while there’s still a long way to go, the unions have helped to change workplaces and community attitudes, allowing LGBT people to be themselves at work. People can come to us for advice and support. We can help effect change.
Can you give us an example of where you’ve helped someone facing difficulties in the workplace?
Karen: A number of years ago, I was contacted by one of our homosexual male members who had volunteered to work offshore in India for his company. He was very distressed and told me that he had come back to the UK pending an investigation, so I arranged to meet him as soon as possible to see what we could do to help. He broke down and told me that a woman had formally accused him of sexual harassment and that he was scared of losing his job.
The accusation was proved to be false and I was able to support him throughout the investigation as well as afterwards to help him get his confidence back.
Watty: One case in particular that resonates with me is a transsexual member of staff who works in a hospital environment. I supported management and HR in arranging a smooth and supported transition for this member in the workplace. Despite this, the member experienced discrimination from patients and their families, which was not being addressed by management. A meeting was therefore organised to discuss how they would support this member of staff, ensure that any discrimination was addressed at a local level – utilising a zero-tolerance approach – and to provide emotional support.
For some, unions are seen as troublemakers, causing strikes and halting UK productivity. How would you respond to someone who had this view?
Watty: I’d point out that across the world people are coming together to campaign for social justice and better communities, and often that starts in the workplace. There are so many examples of employees and employers working together in partnership to achieve shared goals, but I don’t think we should ignore the fact that workers have the right to withhold their labour. It’s not about being a troublemaker; there are times when direct action is a legitimate response to an employer or the government’s refusal to treat them with dignity and respect.
Karen: People often remember the strikes in the 70s and 80s and have an outdated perception that trade unions go in there, bang their fists and get everybody out on strike. The last thing we want as a trade union is for people to go out on strike.
Trade unions are not that good at publicising our successes and we need to get better at that. We need to show people that the relationship between an employer and a trade union can be beneficial to the business. It’s a symbiotic relationship – the trade union supports the business, the business supports the union members.
How can unions help boost UK productivity?
Watty: We can learn a lot from other nations. Countries like France and Germany have higher productivity than us, but they’ve also got strong unions. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. In other countries, there’s a strong sense of community and a culture of working together to reach shared goals.
Anne: If the country is ever renationalised, which some politicians are talking about, we’d have a more productive and successful approach to helping Britain get back on its feet again. There’ll be more work for everyone, a better standard of living, a better salary and they won’t be at the mercy of private employers.
Karen: Productivity has a lot to do with decisions that are made by management. The highest productivity comes from better people management – not production or performance management. If people feel negative about the business, they’re not going to work any harder.
Kath: We’re trying to make a better workplace for everybody. We’re here for the majority, not the minority. At the end of the day, when I’m looking at what a company is offering, I want everybody to be treated fairly. If you work together, you’re more likely to be successful.
What are the unions doing to promote job security and end zero-hours contracts?
Karen: The CWU doesn’t accept zero hours. We have meaningful discussions with employers to find alternative ways to do things, such as fixed-term contracts and conversions to direct labour wherever possible.
Anne: Employees should have proper contracts and guaranteed hours. If you’re working outside of these hours they should be optional and, if they’re not, they should be part of your contract and you should be paid for it. It’s people’s lives we’re dealing with here.
Watty: The workplace for many has changed quite dramatically and many UNISON members have got access to zero hours or banked hours within their workplaces. This might work because it gives them more flexibility or are additional to core contract hours, but UNISON doesn’t support the abuse of workers that the gig economy represents.
Kath: The more the unions go to the media, the more people hear about it, disagree with it, and then we unite together. It means the government has to listen.
What challenges do the unions face in 2018 and beyond?
Watty: The same challenges as employers, especially with regards to Brexit, globalisation and the average age of the UK continuing to rise.
Anne: A concern around Brexit is the impact on our members with European nationality. UNISON has many multi-cultural organisations – we don’t want to lose them or to make them feel like second class citizens.
Karen: Austerity is also a challenge. Women and people in lower paid jobs in particular find it hard to afford traditional union membership fees.
Karen: It’s also about innovation and looking at things in different ways. We need to be proactive and futureproof. It’s about keeping people motivated and engaged.
We need to find new ways of reaching out to new members. The old-fashioned way of having a meeting and putting a note up on a noticeboard doesn’t work anymore.
With an overall decline in union membership, how are the unions working to recruit new members?
Karen: One of the things the CWU is doing to recruit new members is looking at new, non-traditional areas of telecommunications work, such as contact centres. On the postal side, most of our members are from Royal Mail, but we’re now expanding into other carriers like TNT and Whistl. Word of mouth is a massive thing but it’s also about actively showing new employers how we can benefit them.
Watty: I think as the economy has changed in the UK, the demographics and identity of the trade unions have changed. What hasn’t changed is the fact that workers want to improve their lives and the lives of their families. We recruit workers by listening to them and helping them to organise for change.
Kath: It’s about increasing word of mouth and educating young people about why the unions started and their importance. Trade unions are not there to be troublemakers, they help with job security and help you have a decent environment to work in and to be treated fairly.
Anne: What people find is that if something has gone wrong in the workplace, we as a union make it easier for them – we back them up. They don’t need to be treated badly because they’ve got our support.