• Leon Hawthorne Show

Unions: Disrupted



This summer, unions have been getting militant, threatening more strikes on the railways and demanding big pay rises for public sector workers. But is it the union movement itself that is facing disruption? Can unions survive when membership is dropping like a stone and young people are refusing to join?

VIDEO SCRIPT: Bank of England staff go on strike.

Continuing industrial action on the railways.

Business as usual for the unions… but are they the ones facing disruption?

Hi, I’m Leon Hawthorne. Trade union bosses are threatening more strikes over pay and conditions.

While unions representing public sector workers and rail workers are sounding more belligerent everyday, the truth is the big union barons know despite any short-term wins, the future is bleak for the union movement.

In the past year, trade union membership dropped by a record 275,000.

It now stands at 6.2 million people, less than half the 13 million peak membership in 1979.

Membership is falling despite increases in both the general population and the number of people in employment. Today, fewer than a quarter (23.5%) of employees are in a union, down from a third (32.4%) just 20 years ago (1995).

This is the reason so many unions have merged to form conglomerates. But the bigger they get, the bigger the existential threats. The main one - members are dying of old age.

Almost 40% of union members are aged over 50… with young membership on a continuing decline.

Why don’t young people join unions? Because unions are stuck in the 1970s, designed for an era where people had a job for life, at a single employer; and the union was there to get them more money every year and fight all threats of job losses.

This scenario is still true for large parts of the public sector, which is where unions are strongest.

53% of public sector workers are in a union, compared with just 13% of those who work in the private sector.

And women are more likely to be in unions than men, 26% versus 21%. This is because of heavy female concentrations in public sector professions like nursing, teaching and the civil service.

But in the dynamic private sector… Internet start-ups, young entrepreneurial companies… unions are virtually non-existent. That’s because the relationship we have with work has changed, while unions have stood still.

British unions are obsessed with fighting the class war. But in the modern workplace, the relationship is more collaborative.

Take a look at how unions function in Denmark.

I spoke with HK: the Danish Union of Commercial and Clerical Employees.

They told me: industrial relations are good because of a system known as “flexi-curity”, flexible employment laws for companies coupled with financial security for workers.

HK members pay 400Kr per month for union membership; and the same again for unemployment insurance. That’s £1200 a year.

The insurance money goes to a separate body known as an “A-kasser”, which pay members who lose their jobs as much as 85% of their normal salary, for two years.

So, instead of blocking changes in working practices and standing in the way of new technology, Danish unions work closely with management. They focus on skills, training and education, which obviously makes people more useful to their current employer; and helps them get a new job if they’re made redundant.

Look: unions have an important role in a democracy and in a market economy. When most unions were established a century ago, bosses were only too willing to send children down mines or up chimneys. So, unions WERE necessary to give workers better bargaining power.

But today, unions are dinosaurs who need to evolve or else face extinction.

In my industry: media. Local newspapers are closing up and down the country due to competition from Facebook and Twitter.

A union that tries to protect journalists’ job, when clearly there is no money to pay for them would be absurd.

Too often, in the public sector, especially, unions try to block progress in order to protect jobs. Instead, they need to get out of the way of natural evolution and focus on giving continuing training to their members, so they have skills that are needed in the new economy.

I’m Leon Hawthorne. Thanks for watching.


© Leon Hawthorne. MMXX.