George Foulkes on the positive role played by trade unions in our democracy and economy
In the coming weeks and months, the debate about the government’s Trade Union Bill is going to heat up, and the tone for the UK labour movement and those on the left of politics is going to become necessarily defensive. This will happen primarily because this Bill is such an outrageous attack on workers’ rights.
It is crucial however, that when the Bill reaches the House of Lords shortly that we also make the positive case for trade unions – and the wealth of evidence means it is case we can and should make vociferously. Only by looking back at the achievements of the unions can we begin to appreciate how different life would be for workers without them.
Unions have been the strongest voice in improving workplace safety, with the presence of safety reps halving the rate of serious injuries; and they were early supporters of the minimum wage, lifting the purchasing power of low-wage workers without significantly impacting unemployment.
Along with all of this, female trade unionists at Ford’s Dagenham and Halewood plants forced the Equal Pay Act of 1970. We are not all the way yet – the continued pay-gap means that from last week, most women will effectively be working for free until the end of the year (Fawcett Society). But tremendous advances have been won, including full statutory maternity leave since 1993.
This is all without even mentioning insurance, legal representation, and other services which unions provide to their members.
But union membership especially benefits the more disadvantaged or vulnerable in society, with young workers earning 39% more and women 30%. Furthermore, the gender pay-gap amongst unionised workers is only 6% compared to 22% amongst the non-unionised workforce.
Beyond their members though, unions’ positive economic impact on the wider economy is massive, with higher union membership correlated with greater income equality, linked to greater productivity, and having the potential to boost British GDP by up to £22.7 billion. And trade unions improve not only our economy but also our democracy, notably by improving voter turnout.
It is not enough however, to cast a vote every five years. Real democracy demands civic engagement by citizens – through churches, charities, and political parties. The trade union movement is the single strongest embodiment of such engagement. They are critical not only for employees to engage with employers on equal terms, but as bodies fighting for wider change. They push for more women on FTSE 100 boards, lobbying for stronger anti-slavery laws, and have had a tangible impact on child poverty.
The essence of a successful democracy is that the rule of the people means that the country works for the benefit of all of the people. The trade union movement, and the Labour Party it birthed, embodies this ideal. We are here to argue for a more just society, to give voice to the silenced, and to champion the continued journey of our nation towards the democratic ideal.
Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock is a backbench Labour Peer. He tweets @GeorgeFoulkes
Published 18th November 2015