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.

Orang

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.

chips