Twilight of the brotherhood

I often wonder why I still carry a union card in my back pocket and watch £14.75 zip out of my bank account every month with such serenity. I expect little from the arrangement – no support, no representation, no information, and I hope I am never in such a hole that I have to depend on the National Union of Journalists.

Unions have never understood contingent workers, such as me. I skim its monthly organ, containing expressions of solidarity with far-off peoples, sneering derision, and long reports of inter-union point-scoring, with eye-rolling detachment. The only collective I would really like to belong to is a fellowship of the unclubbable.

But give it up? Never. It’s not a matter of usefulness – it’s a matter of instinct that is difficult to put into words. It’s a vague hope that unions may still have some ‘sword of justice’ type role, both at work and in civil society.

It’s a sense that while employers and employees now have many shared interests, those interests are far from identical. And it’s an iron certainty that the old line of how a union presence is a sign that employers are failing to manage their people properly really is appalling claptrap of the highest order.

Yet, the awkward truth is that members like me are symptomatic of the labour movement’s current crisis. We see no practical benefits, only some unspecified need. Instinct has taken the place of reason in a way that anyone under the age of 25 will find hard to understand.

‘What will I get out of it if I join’ is a reasonable question now, just as it was in 1868 when the TUC was founded. The difference is that the collective sense of belonging that helped answer it before no longer makes much sense. Once, trade union membership was conformance; now it is deviancy. Gone, too, is the understanding that the interests of labour and capital are irrevocably opposed. Industrial peace has led to a fuzzy sense of common-ground-with-limits.

And so unions try, and fail, to answer the ‘why join’ question in Thatcherite terms of bangs-for-your-buck. Fairness? Most people think they are treated fairly at work by employers anyway, and then there’s all that endless employment law. A wage-premium? Recent studies suggest the union mark-up has shrunk to nothing for men and to a fractional amount for women. ‘Why join’ is getting harder to answer as time goes on.

Crisis is a strong word that will doubtless by scoffed at by unions when they meet at Congress in Brighton next month. But crisis is accurate. The most recent Workplace Employment Relations Survey shows that the better news of 2000-03 has failed to stem the progressive loss of members. In 1998, 57% of workplaces had no union members, while union members made up a majority of the workforce in 22% of workplaces. By 2004, the figures had changed to 64% and 18% respectively.

What is more, the unions appear to be failing to pick off what ought to be easy recruits: half of all workers are employed in establishments that recognise unions, but that does not seem to mean unions are converting these free-riders into members. Unions can no longer blame a hostile government and overtly anti-union employers for their plight. Their future rests with themselves, employees, and trends in the labour market.

In a devastating analysis of the unions’ predicament published by the Work Foundation earlier this year,* professor David Metcalf, of the London School of Economics, uncovers what amounts to a trade union job-suppression hormone. Unionised workplaces are no more likely to shut than non-unionised ones, as well as being no less productive. However, it appears that in unionised workplaces, employment grows 3% slower, or declines 3% faster, than in non-unionised organisations.

Against the background of an economy that has added 200,000 jobs on average every year since 1990, this hormonal effect mounts up. Non-unionised workplaces outbreed unionised: establishments less than 10 years old are half as likely as older firms to have unions. With the public sector and utilities unlikely to add many more jobs, unions will soon cover 20% of the workforce (12% in the private sector), compared with 29% last year.

On present evidence, it looks as if unions are destined for a long, slow dwindling of influence, punctuated by the odd mega-merger and wildcat strike. A failure to articulate a clear ‘why join’ case, and unable to break out of traditional strongholds, the crisis is more serious for unions than the legislative onslaught of the 1980s because there is no obvious enemy to blame.

And perhaps herein lies the fundamental reason for their situation. Work, as done by the comfortably off, white-collar rump of union members, is better than it used to be. Obviously, we’re not talking about the degraded fringes of the labour market where the need is greater than ever – but then unions have never had much success in organising there. We’re talking about life at work experienced by the majority – the apolitical, unobtrusive, doing-OK bulk.

The great unheralded revolution in working life is the people-centred outlook of many organisations, bringing with it the rhetoric of mutual gains, shared interests, high commitment, teamwork, careers, development and involvement. HR management is killing off the unions.

* British Unions: Resurgence or Perdition? David Metcalf, Provocations Series, volume 1, number 1, Work Foundation, January 2005

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