Makeover or merger: time for the TUC to modernise

As trade unionists gather again in Brighton it is arguable whether many in the HR community will notice. Gone are the days when the annual Trades Union Congress (TUC) was news, and its even longer ago that what occurred there had much resonance with the bulk of UK employers. It begs the question: what is the TUC for?

I have no doubt that unions are an important and crucial part of a civilised society. It is important that there are checks and balances in place to protect vulnerable workers, monitor and curtail exploitative employers and ensure fairness for all. However, this raises a number of questions about the role of trade unions, and particularly the TUC.

In 1999, in an article for The Independent newspaper, I wrote that trade unions had not “kept pace with the rapid changes in British industry, never mind the global economy” and “trade union structures are part of the problem, rather than the solution”. Sadly, I don’t see that much has changed.

Sure, there have been union mergers which have led to some consolidation, but they have also caused some structural problems for the TUC. Witness the Amicus/T&G merger to create Unite, which now represents nearly one-third of union membership. Given its size – what does Unite get or expect from the TUC?

While unions have made some changes over the past 30 years, little has been done to scrutinise and examine the role, structure and function of the umbrella body. The TUC has no members, yet it is seen by many workers as important for protecting and promoting their rights. It exists because 58 trade unions affiliate to it. They fund it, control it and drive it. So is it independent or a function of its affiliates? The TUC objectives include: “To do anything to promote the interests of… its affiliated organisations”.

How relevant are those objectives to the estimated 20 million workers not in affiliated unions? The answer must be “not very”. What is the TUC actually doing about engaging with them? These employees clearly do not want to join a union, but I know working people want a champion to advise and support them. I think the TUC can speak for all UK workers, but it is time, after 140 years, to rethink its form and function. Should workers be able to access TUC services and support without belonging to a trade union? The time is right for radical ideas to be freely discussed.

The very name – Trades Union Congress – smacks of the 19th century. Collectively the name has little resonance and separately the words mean nothing at all. The TUC should change its name to better represent what it does: what about the Organisation for Workers’ Rights or The Centre for Improvement. Thought must also be given to structure and location. The new organisation doesn’t need a general secretary it needs a commissioner, or better still a director-general. Does its headquarters Congress House need to be in central London? A prime piece of real estate, its sale could finance regional resource centres and ensure that the organisation is based across the country.

Unions have been spectacularly successful over the last 140 years. Take, for example, the notion of equality in the workplace, health and safety, paid maternity leave or protection against unfair dismissal. In reality they have won the battles set out by the founders of the labour movement. Is it now time for a confirmation of that success? If the TUC is unsure of its role, and can’t change, might the unthinkable need contemplating? If we are truly to make progress as a society, should the TUC consider amalgamating with the CBI to fight for fairness and justice for all workers and employers? Are the aims of both organisations so widely apart that such an idea is a non-starter? After all, what is the real difference in seeking “to improve the economic or social conditions of workers” and helping “create and sustain conditions for business to compete and prosper for all”.

Both the TUC and the CBI make decisions that impact on all of our lives – but none of them truly represents us all. This is the chance to change all that in the world of work. All those in favour?

Rory Murphy is an ex-union general secretary and HR specialist.

What do you think? Should the TUC change its name or merge with the CBI?

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