Article first published in Issue 133.
The story is well known by now. Ever since the Thatcher era, British trade unionism has been on the retreat. With every annual publication of trade union statistics by the government, the organised workers’ movement is shown to have shrunk yet a little bit more. Earlier this year, the Guardian marked the event with a headline announcing that British union membership “has plunged to an all-time low” of 6.2 million . Trade union leaders, the article reported, place the blame on falling public sector employment and the rise of precarious service sector work- Essentially, the falling away of sectors that are easier to organise, and the growth of sectors that present a greater challenge to the trade unionist.
The figures also present the troubling reality that our trade unions disproportionately represent older workers while at the same time failing to represent younger workers. Despite only comprising 28.5% of workers overall, 39% of union members belong to the over 50’s age bracket. As for workers in the 16-24 age bracket, they make up less than 5% of the unionised workforce. Unfortunately, it seems that British trade unionism is an ageing beast, increasingly irrelevant to the nation’s youth.
Given the much discussed trends towards “gig-economies”, precarious work and the globalisation of our once dependable staple industries (December 2015, for example, saw the British deep coal miner pass into extinction), and given that it is the youth of today that are especially feeling the sting of this new world of work, the need for trade unions to adapt is palpable. The alternative is further stagnation, and, with no effective organisation among new generations of workers, the inevitable erosion of hard won rights. This is all rather depressing, and as can be expected feeds into the pessimism fashionable in certain sections of the left. Thankfully, there are also many activists today who take the words of the great American trade unionist Joe Hill to heart: “Don’t waste any time mourning. Organize!”
All over Britain we are seeing young people trying out new ways of acting and organising. Good examples include this year’s McDonald’s strike, which, despite being mistakenly reported as the first such ever in the U.K., marked an important advance in fast food organising, and the successes of the grass-roots Independent Workers Union of Great Britain in organising English Deliveroo workers. These, and other projects like them, show the nation’s youth leading the way not just in fighting against low pay and bad hours, but in organising sectors traditionally considered as difficult territory. In their bravery and readiness to experiment, they point out the path that the trade union movement as a whole must tread if it wants to survive.
Scotland hasn’t been left out of the fun, either. The last few years have seen the emergence of a very promising workplace campaign by the Scottish Trades Union Congress called “Better Than Zero”. As the name suggests, the campaign’s main focus is on fighting zero-hours contracts and poverty pay all across Scotland. They intend to do this by taking “action against Scotland’s most exploitative bosses in order to improve working conditions” and by equipping their activists “with the legal knowledge and organising skills to change their workplaces from within.” Given the type of work being protested, Better Than Zero has naturally taken the shape of a young persons’ project, and has so far went to the defence of precarious workers in a number of businesses, most notably those of Stefan King’s G1 Group.
Some of their recent acts include protests over dismissals of staff at the Grosvenor Cinema on Ashton Lane, the exposing of bullying by a manager at Glasgow’s Via Italia restaurant, and taking part in a campaign to improve wages at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Past actions, aimed at raising awareness through flash mobs and stunts, have included Christmas carolling in G1’s Corinthian Bar and a Halloween funeral march through Ashton Lane, all of which is to say that Better Than Zero is a campaign that makes use of a wide variety of tactics for its purposes. This dynamism, coupled with the central role it gives to young workers, marks out Better Than Zero as one bright spot on an otherwise bleak landscape.
It remains to be seen whether the trade union movement can pull itself out of the chronic decline of recent years. It will be a long and hard job, certainly, and will require many more McStrikes, Better Than Zeroes and Deliveroo campaigns. Not all of these attempts will succeed, but all of them are necessary. In the meantime, we can at least be sure that for plenty of young people today, the spirit of solidarity is far from dead.
[Photo: Better Than Zero Campaign]