Trade Off

The trade union movement might finally be seeing a resurgence after decades of decline

17th February 2019

Trade union membership is currently at it’s lowest since records began in 1995.

Where joining a union might have been a rite of passage for previous generations, millennials are considerably less likely than their parents to sign up.

These days unions tend to be stuffed with those who’ve stuck around over the years, and it’s estimated that two out of every five union members are over 50.

But things could be starting to change.

HeartUnions Week , which is organised by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and comes to an end today, aims to celebrate trade unions and raise awareness of the work they do.

This is perhaps needed now more than ever, since fewer and fewer people under 30 seem to be aware of what it is unions do. At the same time, it’s this demographic that is perhaps most in need of the advantages unions can provide. Sadly, an increasing number of young workers are thinking of trade unions as irrelevant to them, if they know of them at all.

Whereas unions used to be a staple of the workplace, with membership in the tens of millions and a real ability to shape the politics of the country, now only around six million people in the UK are union members. This might still seem like a large number but it represents a steep decline.


With movements like the Labour Party suddenly attracting tens of thousands of younger members following the election of Jeremy Corbyn, unions’ inability to do the same is pretty noteworthy. This is particularly true given that, before the 1990s, to be a supporter of Labour or socialism usually also went hand in hand with union membership.

Most new members of these movements have very little connection to the old culture of unions, and no desire to join. Young people might be politically active, and attracted to ideas of community action, but it seems that this alone hasn’t caused many to sign up. Unions simply aren’t on many people’s radar as a meaningful solution to the problems they face at work.

As a result, unions have been redoubling their efforts to try and engage younger workers. There have been more attempts recently to get into social media and digital communications. According to Emma Bean, media officer at the TUC, unions have recognised there is a need “to diversify the communications channels we use – going directly to young workers rather than expecting them to come to us.”

A miners strike rally in London, 1984  📸 Nick


The TUC even has an app coming out which will allow workers to compare salaries and get information on their workplaces and sectors, with the aim to help raise workers expectations of what they are owed, and what it’s possible to push for through collective action. Many campaigners have also been pushing for unions to become more diverse, claiming that they are to dominated by the same old “men in suits” who’ve always run things, and who do little to inspire or relate to young workers from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Twitter and Facebook might be important but with so many people in insecure work and on zero-hour contracts, prospective members have to be sure about what they’ll get when they set up a direct debit for union membership fees.

There is little to no trade union education in schools

The tried and tested route for people to join unions was through word of mouth; a trusted colleague is also a member and has benefited from union membership, so you join up too. But many workplaces simply do not have these union reps who can work to get the whole of the workforce united and who can demonstrate the benefits of such action. Lauren Townsend, an activist who helped organise strikes by her fellow staff at TGI Fridays, claims that this is the single biggest challenge in getting young people involved.

“They just do not know what trade unions are, that is the reality of the situation,” she says.

“There is little to no trade union education in schools, and since Thatcher’s quashing of them back in the eighties we have a generation of young people going into work now whose parents likely weren’t in trade unions, and in a generation or two we will have young people going into work who’s grandparents weren’t in trade unions.”

The shrinking of trade unions is a long-term trend. Simply organising and campaigning has become much harder since Margaret Thatcher’s campaign against unions, with UK labour laws coming down much more heavily on unions than they did before.

A changed landscape

There is no longer a legal basis for “sympathy strikes” where the workers of one workplace or sector can come out in support of another, something that is a legal right in most other European countries. Townsend also points out how the mandated six-week process between unions deciding to take action and legally being able to do so leaves many feeling “impotent”. She also explains how this extra time means companies can deploy numerous union-busting techniques, “from scaring staff with legal jargon in some stores to bribing staff in others (with prizes such as Fitbits and GoPros). Also six weeks is a lot of time for people to leave the company, especially after feeling so disappointed at their treatment and losing so much money, so we lost some people just in the time between issuing ballot notice and striking.”  

The huge transformations in the British economy and industry since the 1980s have completely changed not only what unions can do, but also what kinds of jobs most workers actually do. Whereas before, most people were in skilled or semi-skilled manufacturing jobs which offered a level of security, and therefore greater incentive for workers to actually organise, now huge numbers of young people instead find themselves in low-paid, low-skilled jobs in the service sector. Most are going into hospitality or retail, and many are stuck in zero-hour contracts, with the knowledge they could be let go at any point. Most people in these kinds of jobs assume they won’t be there long, and they consequently have much lower expectations about the work environment.

Deindustrialisation has had the effect of making work much more casualised. Workers know there’s no real job security and are constantly coming and going, which makes the prospect of organisation amongst them much more difficult. It’s become expected that companies like McDonalds will see a high turnover of staff and will always be able to find new workers, resulting in poor conditions becoming an all-too tolerated norm.

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady hands in a 200,000 signature petition to Number 10 Downing Street calling on the government to rethink its Trade Union Bill, 2016  📸 SumOfUs

The most problematic part of all this, campaigners argue, is that these conditions, which have made things so hard for unions to attract new members, have made it more vital than ever that younger people get involved. As Bean points out, it’s disproportionately younger people who are in these kinds of work and, without being able to organise to improve conditions there, they can often get stuck.

Ian Hodson, national president of the Bakers, Food and Allied Worker’s Union (BFAWU), notes how, despite the high turnover in this kind of work, and the assumption that its usually temporary, most are working in the sector out of necessity.

“With the decline of manufacturing and the shortage of alternative employment, this is the sector that offers most opportunities to try to earn a living,” he claims. “It’s a highly profitable sector with some of the world’s richest and most powerful global corporations, yet it’s not used its good fortune to improve employment rights but has led the way in the race to the bottom, using its influence to change employment laws via its lobbying activities and aggressive management techniques.”

The fact is that this is the sector most young people find themselves working in, in today’s market and, without union backing, a lot of us are largely powerless in relation to employers. There’s also evidence that the current climate is, in the long run, harmful for the economy as a whole. The decline of union membership and bargaining power has led to the lowest growth in wages in over a century.


Some campaigners in these industries are working to try and change things and get their respective workplaces organised. Particularly over the last year we have witnessed an increase in campaigns for workers on zero-hour contracts in retail and hospitality to get more bargaining power and a fairer share in wages. The GMB union made headlines recently over a row with Uber, who was trying to claim its drivers were “self-employed” and therefore weren’t entitled to a proper worker’s wage. However, since Christmas, the courts have come down on the side of GMB three times in a row. The Unite union has meanwhile spent the past three years campaigning for Sports Direct workers to be given better contracts and conditions, winning an independent review of employment practices which have, reportedly, included punishments for “excessive chatting, long toilet breaks and even being off sick, and being named and shamed over a tannoy for not working fast enough”.

Conditions in the fast food industry have also been a big target for unions like BFAWU, with the fast foods campaign being set up in 2014 to challenge what Hodson calls the “apparent acceptance” of low pay, insecure work, and inequality. This helped lead, in September 2017, to the first ever strike by McDonalds workers in the UK. Workers marched outside Parliament calling for a minimum living wage of £10, and with support from other trade unions, as well as the leadership of the Labour Party, eventually had this demand met.

We won back our shift meals which means staff working double shifts now get lunch

Perhaps one of the most well co-ordinated strikes to take place recently has been the Fast Food Shutdown, on 4 October 2018. This was a huge rally held in Leicester Square that saw simultaneous strikes by workers from TGI, McDonalds, Wetherspoons, Deliveroo and UberEats. The Shutdown was the culmination of a campaign that began, as Townsend explains, with TGI Friday’s decision to take 40% of waiting staff’s tips with two days’ notice, and give them instead to the kitchen staff. This was done, Townsend asserts, as a “divide and conquer” strategy to avoid giving kitchen staff any actual wage rise. Inspired by the McStrikes, Townsend contacted Hodson, who was able to send BFAWU members who quickly helped organise TGI staff. Widespread support was drummed up through social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, and the shutdown that resulted had support not only from other fast food workers but multiple unions including Unite, UNISON, GMB, BFAWU, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), United Voices of the World (UVW) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU).

McDonalds workers form a 6am picket outside the Crayford branch 📸 War on Want

The changes won as a result of this shutdown have, according to Townsend, been small, but have improved things for thousands of workers at the company. She notes how “we won back our shift meals (which they took away) which means staff working double shifts (all day) now get lunch. We won the right to not have them dictate what shoes we must wear for work. They used to insist on black, polishable, non-slip – which are not cheap. The union taught us they cannot do this, as we are on minimum wage, to make us buy anything for work brings us below minimum wage and is illegal… We now get paid to attend compulsory meetings… [and] for all the time it takes to do our training… We also got 5% of our tips back. Not great, considering this was our big demand and the reason for us taking action in the first place, but definitely a start and it prevented them taking anymore, which we strongly believe was their plan had we not unionised.”

The Fast Food Shutdown is a pretty good indicator of just where the union movement is at the moment. Most of the concessions won have been relatively small, as Townsend notes. Companies like TGI may have given some small tokenistic peace offerings but these usually fall short of what was demanded. However, they do demonstrate that joining a union can still make a vital difference, and the improvements that workers like Townsend have gained for themselves would certainly not have been achieved without union support and organisation.

the sector is full of young leaders and they’re here today

In an era of stagnating wages and insecure work, with one in ten workers in precarious jobs (up by two million compared to a decade ago) being a member of a union can still make all the difference for those who find themselves being exploited. Almost all those who’ve been active in unions over the past two years have been incredibly positive about the benefits that come with it, and the need for more young people to get involved. Townsend speaks enthusiastically about how “so many of my colleagues have now got involved in the wider Labour movement — a world that had seemed inaccessible to waiters and bartenders and busboys before. But so many of them have shown themselves to be natural leaders, good public speakers, proper socialists and top comrades.”

Whilst the changes from secure to insecure work over the past few decades can be seen to have weakened the unions, the recent activities by fast food workers, Uber drivers and bar and factory workers has given many hope that the trade union movement is on the verge of a genuine revival. “What this campaign has demonstrated,” Hodson argues, “is that the sector is full of young leaders and they’re here today. In my opinion these workers are not just bringing about a new renaissance of the trade union movement but are creating a new chapter in our movement’s history.”

Main image credit: Garry Knight

17th February 2019