The future of trade unions


Tonight I started the MA.  I don’t actually get inducted onto the course until the end of October but with the first set of reading through on email I have started tonight.  First up is an article entitled “The Future of Trade unions” by Richard Hyman. 

I found this a positive article despite it starting with the central question of whether trade unions will survive in any real sense following major crises.  Hyman then details the issues of dwindling membership levels as traditional forms of mass employment come to an end and also organisational problems that prevent unions from remaining relevant.  Globalisation and the tendency to react to events rather than be organised sufficiently are also looked at.

Moving from the cause of crisis to the ways in which unions might develop the author sets out several key areas including ones that have developed since the piece was published in 2004.  Most activists will relate to the idea that unions can gain ground by making a political case via communications with members and in wider society even though traditional ideological messages may not be so effective.  Likewise the idea that emerging social movements should be supported and cooperated with by unions is seen by many as a suitable way forward, when such movements share our ideals.  In many ways it seems strange to think that unions were so slow in getting involved with the Occupy movement for example.

Hyman makes an interesting suggestion that unions should seek to reclaim words such as “choice” and “opportunity”.  These terms often appear entwined with the free market. This is useful as I suspect many in the labour movement would not proclaim to be against choice or opportunity.  The question then becomes one of how unions campaign for such terms and their meaning in our context.  The author makes the distinction between individual choices and the structure of opportunity.  Often workers have very little movement within the opportunity structures and so employment choices can be weak.  Unions could have a role therefore in campaigning for enhanced opportunity structures and therefore help people to have much better options when making a career choice.

The final point I want to make about the article is that it highlights the idea of flexibility – a word often used by employers and government alike in pressing for changes that have a detrimental effect on workers.  To counter this, flexibility could be taken up as a union cause in order to provide people with what Hyman describes as “time sovereignty” for individuals.  Using flexibility as a tool in empowerment can also then lead to greater organisation and increased membership.

I have a feeling that had the article been written more recently it would have included more solid information on the idea of community membership in unions.  The issue is touched on but with recent advancements by some unions in this area it warrants further exploration.

Title: The Future of Unions, from “Unions in the 21st Century: An International Perspective”.  Edited by Anil Verma and Thomas A. Kochan, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Author: Richard Hyman

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