finance

Workers are again learning the power of collectivism | Torsten Bell


You need to take good news where you can find it. Last week, that place was new trade union membership statistics. The story for decades has been that unions are in irreversible decline, but membership in 2020 rose by 118,000 to 6.6m, the biggest increase for two decades and the fourth year in a row that employee membership has increased – something not seen since the 1970s.

This is good news for everyone who wants to see the quality of work rise and inequality fall. But it’s not time to welcome a new collectivist dawn just yet. All of last year’s growth came from the pandemic-induced growth of the public sector, where 52% of employees are members (as against 13% in the private sector). That isn’t a sustainable basis for revival. Low-paid workers are at most risk from labour market abuses, but least likely to be in a union: just 3% of hospitality workers are members. Meanwhile, the fact that baby boomers, with higher unionisation rates, are retiring poses a long-term drag to membership.

Luckily, there are places to look for answers. The retail sector has had increasing membership thanks to consistent engagement with employers by unions. Even in the gig economy, some employers are backing away from a wild-west approach, with Uber formally recognising the GMB union last week. So progress can be made. If you want to be part of it, join a union.



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