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The future of trade unions

Text of Brendan Barber's (TUC General Secretary) City University Vice Chancellor's Lecture

I am sure that if you had asked me eight or nine years ago the title may have been 'have British unions a future'?

For then there was a growing questioning and not only on the political right whether unions had had their day. Too many people could be heard to say things like:

'Unions were of course very important once upon a time, but their job has been done. The age of mass production is over. The new world is all about individual relationships, and unions will wither away. A glorious past perhaps, but no real future.'

And there was at least some evidence to support that view. Union membership had fallen every year from its post war peak in 1980. The government had cut unions almost entirely out of the political loop, and their electoral strategists were still convinced that attacking unions was a vote winner.

A series of legal restrictions on unions sought to undermine our capability to recruit and represent our members effectively. Industrial action had fallen, and there had been some significant union failures to advance through strike action.

The cults of yuppie greed and macho management ruled in the boardroom, and shareholder value was becoming the sole objective. Above all there was wide restructuring across much of the economy, usually to the detriment of trade union membership and influence.

There was a big decline in the kind of large workplaces that once made up the backbone of employment - the mines, the steel works, the car factories. Male manual work - both skilled and unskilled - has been in inexorable decline. And as any historians here will know the two great waves of growth of trade unionism's early years came from male manual workers - first craft workers and then the new unionism that organised the less skilled.

In addition:

The utilities were privatised and shed jobs. Parts of the public sector were contracted out, and many public services run down. We were told that unemployment was a price well worth paying.

Indeed job insecurity began to be seen as almost a desirable policy objective. Jobs for life we were told were at an end - though some of us had failed to see them start in the first place. The new orthodoxy was that we would all hold portfolio jobs in the future. Easy hire and fire was the new shortcut to economic prosperity - though perhaps not for the fired.

But while this brave new world of job insecurity may have seemed attractive to bright young London based MBAs with no family commitments, it's a rather narrow electoral constituency for a party hoping to win power. The result was a political and economic backlash. We still feel its repercussions today.

The result is that, while ten years ago you might have had a lecture called 'the future of the Conservatives'. Now it would be 'Have the Conservatives a future?'

So why did unions refuse to die quietly? Is there a real union renaissance? What do unions need to do to ensure a healthy future? What should our role be at the workplace and in wider civil society, including the political sphere? These are the questions I want to try to address.

But first let me make the basic case for trade unionism.

Freedom of association is rightly prominent in every charter and declaration of human rights. It is no coincidence that authoritarians and dictators of left and right usually crack down on trade unions as a priority. Look to the vicious attacks on the union movement by the Mugabe regime today as a grim reminder of this eternal truth.

A free and democratic society needs to be pluralist. There must be checks and balances on those who wield power. There must be a voice for everyone, not just the rich, the privileged and the powerful. A man called Wilfred Rogers who was the first President of the Labour Representation Committee in 1894 put it this way 'There must be an independent life within the state to prevent Government becoming Tyranny and the trade unions will be chief among those who call that independent life into being.'

And that simple principle goes just as much for the workplace as it does wider society. Indeed while the politics of the 1970s raised questions about union power and influence, today the same questions are being asked about Boardrooms. Inequality has grown. While directors' pay soars, huge numbers of workers remain locked into poverty pay rates. There remains an unacceptable gender gap. Despite the equal pay legislation women's pay still lags almost 20 percent behind men's. And too many black lives continue to be blighted by discrimination and disadvantage in the workplace. All the evidence shows that if you are black in Britain today you are more likely to be unemployed, less likely to win promotion up the career ladder, less likely to receive training and support.

The relationship between employer and employed is inherently unbalanced. Trade unions give that opportunity for employees to speak collectively, to pool their limited power in order to bring some balance to the employment relationship and to tackle these deep rooted inequalities.

Perhaps the most overworked cliché about democracy is that it is the least worst system of government we have. The same point could sometimes be made about employer-union relationships. Industrial relations can break down from time to time. Disputes can become difficult and protracted. Unions - and their members - may not always get it right.

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