Chips Shops, Orang-utans and Trade Unions

This blog was prompted by a great conversation with the wonderful  Perry Timms and Julie Drybrough in a chip shop, late one evening in Manchester.  I’ll not lie, there was a drink taken.  Damiana Castle was there too, although once I started talking about the miners’ strike she arranged a lift home.  Funny that.

Before I tell you about the chip shop chat, I want to share something said to me recently by a long standing trade union official, a man for whom I have the utmost respect.  He said to me that trade unions were like Orang-utans.  Years ago, people started to attack their territory, but they did nothing but hang on to the same trees.  Time went by, and more trees were cut down.  Now they are just hanging onto the last few tree tops in the forest.  They are now critically endangered, and only time will tell if they can avoid becoming extinct.


Whether you agree with his sentiment, I think this is an interesting metaphor.  In some ways it echoed the chip shop conversation, although I recall we stopped short of likening trade union officials to primates.  We talked about the employee voice.  Where is its future?

Rewind a decade or two, and the trade union movement was the voice of the working man and woman.  Trade Union leaders were household names.  Their influence on the political agenda was significant.  I’m not going to tell you things you probably already know about the decline of TUs, changes in the 1980s.  But we sit here with today TU membership hovering around the 6m mark, a big chunk of which is in the public sector.  Underneath that top line number, there is the interesting but unsurprising statistic that only 10% of all 16-24 year olds are members of a trade union.

Think of the business scandals of late.  Where did the pressure come from to make Starbucks put their hand in their pocket to pay some tax?   Where was the noise?  Answer: Social Media. It came from the consumer voice (idea © Perry Timms).   If the employees or unions did voice an opinion I will confess to having missed it.

Everyone knows I don’t have much time for the age stereotyping that we call #generationblah, but if you are 18 years old today, entering the job market for the first time, what would make you join a trade union?  If the unions fail to make themselves relevant to this cohort then my union colleague might well have a point about extinction.

I am offering no answers in this blog, only posing questions, but I hope to start some debate.  Hopefully it is topic that Perry and I are going to do some further work on in the future, along with a few others we have strong armed along the way.  So here are the questions:

  • What are the wider societal implications of having a declining trade union voice?  It is easier as HR practitioners to enjoy the day to day ease of a weaker TU, but what of the bigger picture?
  • Do you agree that trade unions are critically endangered, like my friend suggests?
  • How can trade unions make themselves relevant to young workers entering the job market?
  • If the Trade Unions stops, or has stopped, being the voice of the worker, then what replaces it?  Is the consumer voice taking over?

I can’t claim all of these questions and ideas.  I think they were generated by the chips.



5 thoughts on “Chips Shops, Orang-utans and Trade Unions

  1. I actually was very gutted that I had to leave as I was finding the conversation very interesting!! I think I might have even recorded it because I wanted to re-listen to all the cool stuff you guys were saying…!! :S
    Had a plane to catch the next day and wisdom teeth were hurting too… I know it sounds like I am making excuses for myself, so I’ll stop here…

    Anyway am I the only 25 year old you know that is registered with a TU? I wish more youngsters would realise how important it is to have a collective voice and I wish that trade unions would realise the enormous opportunity they have right now to promote themselves. Little employment rights if you start a new job until you’ve stayed there 2 years!? There should be TU signs everywhere, outside universities, all over cities explaining why this is concerning and trying to get more members! I hope they wake up and grab this opportunity …

    I know of friends and employees who will simply resign themselves to their fate because they are unaware of their employment rights or believe they will never get justice against an employer which has deeper pockets and manpower with which to fight a claim. Many are not prepared to fight their corner and educate themselves about their rights. Most don’t even know about the grievance procedure… Trade Unions could help, trade unions SHOULD help, trade unions should be making a massive fuss about this all and consequently they would get a huge increase in members.

    Carpe diem… or it will be another missed opportunity they’ll end up regretting for a long time!

  2. Another fabulously drafted piece which feels like the thin end of a (red) wedge. I am amazed that this has seemingly become an unspoken issue. The statistics you quote and @flipchartrick put out in his recent blog about Maggie show a serious issue which doesn’t appear to be talked up by either anti or pro unionists. Movements around membership, campaigns about relevance and research into this don’t appear to be prominent enough hence our chip-fuelled conversation. If Unions were a commercial organisation they feel like Woolies or Jessops and not like Amazon or Trip Advisor. This links perfectly with your E word musing and is in need of greater prominence. For the sake of work, let’s see what we can do about this and get some movement on a new voice proposition that is about stimulus, fairness and positive influence and not adversarial counter-punching. IR or ER, collective bargaining and representation this aspect of the world of work also needs a new way. Well put and delighted to be working with you on this Gemma.

  3. It’s interesting to note that in Germany, a country lauded by all colours of political spectrum for its economic strength, has a changing TU landscape too. Here they are seeking a decline in member of the traditional big unions and growth of specialist niche unions. I belong to the GMB (probably the only recruitment consultant) not because I find them that relevant to my needs as a worker but because I believe in the principle of unionism and think it should be supported. Perhaps the answer is more unions that are specialist but can come together for collaborative bargaining? How about a union for young people? How about a union for graduates? How about a union for recruiters (I’d join)?

  4. I used to work for an organisation that was heavily unionised and I was a member of the relevant trade union for the entire 24 years that I worked there. I was responsible for induction for the last six years that I worked there. I lost count of the number of times that I invited the union to come and talk to the new team members about the benefits of trade union membership and they failed to take advantage of the opportunity, then complained about falling membership.
    Then there is the issue of trade unions themselves being seen as old-fashioned and undemocratic. The union that I belonged to for 24 years has a leader that is in post for life and earns far more than the average salary of the people he represents. He excuses that by saying that his salary is voted on by the national executive – however, there is nothing to stop him donating a fair amount of it to a worthwhile cause and as far as I know, he doesn’t. Also, in my opinion, all trade union leaders should have to stand for re-election as often as Governments do. Perhaps they would then be seen as more relevant.
    I should add that I am a strong supporter of the trade union movement – it just needs to update itself and make itself more relevant to the 21st century workplace, in my opinion.

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