Photo: Gig Economy from Neil Schofield Flickr photo stream

How UK trade unions can meet the needs of the contemporary labour force

In a very poor attempt to offer up some ‘good’ news, Conservative party supporters continue to make much of the increased UK employment rate. Something that, on the face of it, is positive. Higher employment rates should equate to a more buoyant economy and a happier, healthier population. In terms of worker rights, decreased unemployment should result in higher membership of trade unions, as a rich abundance of employment opportunities place pressure on employers to improve working conditions and ensure that employees secure a fairer share of the income they collectively generate – in effect employers should be competing with each other to keep employees.

However, these are not the outcomes we are witnessing. For example, precarious work, in work poverty and zero-hour contracts (lauded as a so-called gig economy) are on the rise. Just check the evidence – in 2017 the ONS recorded almost 2 million contracts where the employee had no guaranteed minimum number of hours. There might be more people ‘in work’, but there is a very real decline in the level or promise of good, secure work that can sustain a household budget, especially for those experiencing the additional costs associated with illness and impairment. Similarly, this purported increase in employment does not result from increased employment of disabled people, for whom the rate of employment stays consistently below the employment rate of their non-disabled peers. Quite simply, the working conditions of those on zero-hour contract roles are not conducive to accessibility or inclusivity for disabled workers. In fact, a previous Cost of Living blog has questioned whether gig-economy jobs result in ‘gig-health’, and early research has raised concerns about the long term health implications of the changing nature of work.

This changing work landscape also represents increased polarisation across the workforce in terms of pay and progression; with a few employees secure in core executive positions while others compete for hours. These workers become a malleable workforce, made up of a powerless reserve of labour which exists at the margins between work and worklessness, including disproportionate numbers of older and disabled workers. In a reflection of the inverse care law, these marginal workers, most in need of representation and advocacy, are least likely to be unionised. This can be attributed to insecure, inconsistent and low incomes not covering the cost of membership for many workers, especially for those that drift periodically into periods of worklessness, or those who have recourse to welfare benefits.

The impact of precarious employment on union membership is not a new thing. Union density in the UK has declined by half since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership in the late 70s and early 80s. Periodic union-busting legislation, and a zeitgeist of rampant individualism has presented a series of challenges to trade unions, which culminated in the Trade Union Act (2016), which was ostensibly to ‘protect people from undemocratic industrial action’ but was actually one of the most serious attacks on the rights of trade unions and their members in a generation. This legislation places new limitations on pickets, as well as arbitrary thresholds on industrial action ballots.

Historically, trade unions were formed in response to specific workforce issues which aren’t necessarily the same issues faced by workers today. There is criticism that trade unions are an outdated relic of a different time, that they are no longer capable of addressing the needs of the contemporary labour force. Critics, even those supportive of collective bargaining, question whether unions can adapt to global economic shifts, changes in migration, productivity, automation and labour force demographics. Certainly, how they organise around issues of health needs to change. Understandably, they have focused on occupational injury and health and safety in the work place, but increasingly there is a need for trade unions to consider how best to respond to a need to manage long term conditions and impairment in the workplace. There is a clear and necessary need for a broadening of scope from understanding illness and impairment inside work as impacting on people’s social lives, to understanding issues of illness and impairment coming into the workplace and requiring issues of access and inclusivity to be addressed.

These issues represent bigger challenges for the trade union movement. Any fight for accessible and inclusive workplaces for disabled employees, and employees experiencing long term health conditions, rests on a fundamental contradiction. The economic exclusion of disabled people is bedrock to the social model of disability’s notion of disablement, and is a key feature of how disabled people are oppressed. In abstract terms, making workplaces accessible and inclusive can only be a good thing. Disability though, as a legislative concept in the UK, is predicated on an individual’s capacity to undertake work. In this regard, trade unions are well placed to trouble the waters on how we define disability as a society. But to do so, they will need to implement activism by agitating for better working conditions without echoing the disingenuous rhetoric of the incumbent government who propel disabled people toward the labour market via the threatened or actual withdrawal of state support.

Numerous commentators reflect on the need for trade unions to attract younger members, a demographic that is disproportionately represented in the zero-hour and gig economy.  Yet, this very real and pressing need to respond to the needs of young, and ostensibly ‘healthy’ vulnerable workers, would have to be balanced within this wider context of an ageing workforce, just as the age at which UK citizens can access their state pension has increased. Illness and impairment are not evenly distributed across the life course. Most experiences of disability and long term illness are concentrated within the middle and later stages of life, so an important challenge to trade unions in the future will be how to address labour relations regarding age and health. Specifically long term conditions that are not occupational in origin, but relate to the changing demographics of the UK labour force. A further challenge is how to foster collectivity between disabled workers – many of whom are unlikely to consider their disability as a political category.

The consistent gap between the employment rate of disabled working age people and their non-disabled peers is layered with levels of ageism which seem to be inherent in ableism. For example, research has shown for both disabled and older workers that employers deliver positive policy-like rhetoric but harbour negative views personally about the capacity of those workers. In the current competitive, individualised labour market, older, ill or disabled workers are likely to end up competing against younger non-disabled workers for crumbs at the table.

In conclusion, increased employment figures in the UK, in some ways represent an opportunity to trade unions. The labour market is fraught, dynamic and flawed and worker demographics are subject to change based on long terms changes to population health. Brexit hangs as a sword of Damocles ready to slash any meaningful gains for workers for decades to come. Though many of us have little faith that in the years following Brexit the UK will become a worker’s utopia, perhaps there is still power in a union. It is time to face the challenges ahead, and agitate for good work for all workers widening the opportunities for collective bargaining, and creating a stronger base for industrial action.

The author Jen Remnant will be part of a panel discussing many of these issues and challenges further in Edinburgh, 27/2/19, at a free event: