One Nation Trade Unionism?
At Labour conference last year, Ed Miliband borrowed from the Tory lexicon and set out his vision for One Nation. A key part of this would be building an economy in which success would be ‘made by the many, not just a few at the top’. But six months on from his Ed’s conference speech, there remains a significant gap in the vision for a One Nation economy. What about Trade Unions?
The Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna recently acknowledged their role as ‘wealth creators for this country’. But what role could unions play in a One Nation economy? And what would a One Nation model of trade unionism look like? With 2015 fast approaching, it’s time for Labour to address these questions.
Unions will obviously continue with their essential work both of representing employees who are mistreated, and pushing for fair pay and good terms and conditions. But in addition to this, a One Nation model of trade unionism might include a greater focus on skills development, on community campaigning and on partnership working.
First, in a One Nation economy, unions could play a vital role in skills development and utilisation. Where they are present in the workforce, unions already do sterling work here, supporting over 170,000 learners each year (1). As a result, the majority of unionised workplaces are ‘high trainers’, compared to just one in three non-unionised workforces.(2)
An incoming Labour government should put unions at the centre of their skills strategy. Working alongside employers, they can help both to identify and remedy skills gaps, and to improve skills utilisation. Giving unions a prominent role here could also bolster their presence in the private sector where, after a sustained period of decline, just one employee in seven is a union member.
Second, trade unions must retain a focus on the community where their members live and work. After all, unions grew out of the community in the early 19th century and they functioned as major providers of welfare services until the state began to take over. Membership helped define working people’s identities and build a sense of community and solidarity at work. Yet the movement has lost some of its community focus in recent years, with some unions concentrating only on industrial issues.
A One Nation model of trade unionism must continue to focus on the wider community. TSSA in their Together for Transport campaign have been using community organising approaches to great effect. They are building coalitions of support including railway workers, passengers, and the wider community to fight for common causes such as protecting ticket offices and lowering fares. The strength of the Living Wage campaign owes much to the union movement. Labour’s strategy for a living wage (and indeed for enforcing the minimum wage) must have the unions front and centre, leading the drive for decent pay in local communities.
Finally, One Nation trade unionism must have workplace partnership at its core. Employers and employees have an obvious shared interest in the sustainability, stability and success of their organisation. There will be differences of emphasis and sometimes of interests, but the key is how these are resolved for the benefit of the workforce and the organisation alike.
Despite talk of a general strike (that would be both unworkable and counterproductive), unions on the ground are recognising the need to work together with employers and compromise in order to protect jobs. Far from a new winter of discontent, strikes remain a fraction of the level seen in previous recessions.
Members want to see their representatives play a positive role; yes standing up for their rights, but also contributing towards the organisation’s success.
Working in partnership with employers, unions could help drive up employee engagement. After all, workplaces with an engagement culture are safer; employees are less stressed and have higher levels of wellbeing; they are better managed; they are listened to and know their voice counts.
There are numerous recent examples of where strong trade unions – through pursuing partnership with employers – have really made a difference to members. Take the mothballed former Corus steel plant at Redcar where Community found new buyers, bringing back thousands of good quality jobs to the local area. Or the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port where Unite were instrumental in winning the contract for the new Astra, securing the future for years to come.
Obviously it takes two to tango; there has to be will on the part of employers to work together. And there are things the government could do to encourage partnership; by legislating to ensure an employee voice on boards or by re-examining the information and consultation regulations. Labour might also consider a new fund along the lines of the Union Modernisation Fund – scrapped by the Coalition – to encourage partnership working and a focus on the community.
However, it is clear that the tone and approach of unions matters too. They need to preach and practice partnership.
Obviously it’s not for the Labour Party to dictate how democratically governed unions should behave. But if Labour is serious about building a One Nation economy, it needs to set out its vision for, and provoke discussion on, the role of trade unions within it. A trade unionism focused on skills and training, on campaigning in the community, and on working in partnership with employers could help deliver the One Nation vision, and really make a difference for working people.
 ‘Working for Learners: A handbook for Unions and their Union Learning Representatives’ Unionlearn, 3rd ed, April 2011, http://www.unionlearn.org.uk/sites/default/files/Working%20for%20learners.pdf
 “The 2011 Workplace Employee Relations Study: First Findings” BIS https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-2011-workplace-employment-relations-study-wers,
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