Today marks the start of #HeartUnions week, a week set aside each year to promote awareness of why everyone really should join a union and celebrating everything unions have already given to everyone in Britain who is either in work, has previously worked, or will work in the future.
It was only because those who came before us chose to join together in unions to fight for a better quality of life in the country that today we have a two-day weekend, paid holiday leave, sick leave, shorter working hours, the right not to face discrimination in the work place, equal pay legislation, health and safety requirements for workers, maternity and paternity leave, and a minimum wage. That’s not taking into account the important campaigns they ran on major moral issues, such as abolishing child labour in the UK, something the Conservatives at the time said would be ‘an economic and social disaster’ (they weren’t too happy about the other improvements we all now enjoy either).
Yet, somewhere along the line trade union membership started to decline. Maybe the efforts of employers and Conservative Governments to make it harder for people to join a union had its impact, maybe people felt they had permanently secured a decent deal for those in work. Whatever the cause, it was a mistake and in the decades since the decline in trade union membership has exactly mirrored the loss of people’s rights at work and a failure for pay to keep pace with the increase in revenue workers delivered for their employers. I strongly believe that for almost every social ill currently faced in the UK, we can find either its origin or a catalyst for its growth in this decline in the ability of ordinary people to have a say in how their economy was run.
Unions have received a bad rep over the years, often for political reasons. Certainly, service users find it annoying when workers go on strike, I’ve seen people complaining that these people already get paid well enough and yet failing to realise that the reason why workers in these sectors continue to do well is because they remain largely unionised.
The reality is that unions today look very different from what they once were, women now make up the majority of trade union members and currently its biggest leadership roles, unions are incredibly diverse, highly professional, and provide a range of services for their members which go well beyond the obvious ones. Yet, for all the many chances, nothing has dulled their utter determination to ensure that the UK’s economy should deliver decently paid work, with fair terms and conditions, and strong health and safety standards for everyone who needs it.
If that’s not enough, then I’ll leave you with a final thought: putting all the other evidence aside, if unions really didn’t really deliver improvements at work for their members, then why would companies be willing to waste so much time and money stopping them (usually illegally)?