Trade Unions: still standing or standing still?

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Trade Unions: still standing or standing still?

Some people say the time for trade unions is finished. But Jo Lateu says they're having a 21st-century revival.


by ImageZoo/Alamy Stock Photo

On a busy London street the London Hotel Workers branch of Unite (Britain’s largest trade union) are protesting. They are supporting Robert, a Hungarian waiter at the five-star Melia hotel. He was sacked because he said it was unfair for managers to share the tips of the waiters.

Taxi drivers beep as they go past. People stop to sign the petitions. Union members shout: ‘What do we want? Fair tips and a union! When do we want it? Now!’

Robert joined the London Hotel Workers. They gave him courage to speak about the injustice. Many hotels and restaurants in London exploit migrants who are desperate for jobs. ‘Hotel workers in the Philippines have more collective bargaining rights than those in London,’ said Dave Turnbull, Unite regional officer.

In Barcelona, people from Senegal who have no papers and are selling on the streets, are also fighting for their rights. They are illegal migrants and they cannot join the existing unions, so they started a new one: the Sindicato Popular de Vendedores Ambulantes (Popular Union of Street Vendors). Clelia Goodchild made a documentary film El peso de la manta about Barcelona’s street vendors. She says the union is not well organized, because it has no experience, no contacts and often does not communicate with its members well – but it is a start. And it has already had some success. The city council recently gave five street vendors the opportunity to go on a fishing course. This will help them get papers and a regular job.

It is very important in the 21st century to get organized and do collective action (as part of a national union, like Robert, or with a small group of co-workers, like the Senegalese street vendors) to stop exploitation. But it is not easy. In many countries of the Global South, trade unionists risk their lives every day to fight injustice, and many are murdered.

Big international companies are getting more power because of secret free-trade agreements. With globalization, making money is much more important than workers. The big companies use more zero-hours contracts, outsourcing, privatization and sub-contracting. The workers’ rights we won in the West are disappearing.


Public-sector workers in Argentina went on strike for a day in February because 21,000 state employees had lost their jobs in the two months since President Mauricio Macri took office in December. Matias Izaguirre/Le Pictorium/Alamy Stock Photo

Trade unions have been supporting workers for nearly 200 years, but they have had good times and bad times. The good times were when they won an eight-hour day and a five-day week, the golden age of the 1930s and 1940s, when employees in the US and Britain had many legal rights. The bad times were, for example, in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher broke down trade unions and attacked workers’ rights, as part of their ‘neoliberal free-market’ plan. Australia’s John Howard followed them. Because of the new laws he introduced at the beginning of this century, many unions lost half their members.

Trade unions have also worked together internationally. In the 1860s, Lancashire cotton workers supported the unionists in the US Civil War. In 1997, dock workers in 27 countries went on strike for a day to support the Liverpool Dockers, who had been on strike for two years. But there have also been times of problems: corruption, bad leadership and fighting inside the unions have made people think badly of unions.

There are probably more problems than good points now. And now, we need them most. Governments continue to pass anti-union laws: between 1982 and 2012, 200 restrictive labour laws were passed by federal and provincial governments in Canada, and after 9/11 the US used the ‘war on terror’ as an opportunity to take away from many federal employees the right to be in a union. They said they could use the new anti-terrorism laws to stop strikes.

But, the movement has begun organizing again. Many unionists now have new optimism and are ready to fight again. But which battles? And with which weapons?

David – or Goliath?

The movement needs to change for the new reality. The world of work has changed and trade unions must change too. One method, in the last twenty years, of making workers more powerful is for smaller unions to get together to create larger unions and federations. A century ago, for example, there were 1,300 unions in Britain; in 2005, there were only 226. The biggest 11 unions now have three-quarters of total membership. For people who believe that there is power in numbers, this is the Goliath option: bigger is better.

But there’s another way – the grassroots social movements. If you rebuilding trade unionism from the bottom up, you can create smaller, more flexible groups. David, who beat Goliath, discovered that you can win with a few good shots.

Here, the power is in people knowing and believing, not from numbers. Unions are wasting their time and money if they concentrate only on getting new members. They should be talking to workers and non-workers about local, national and global issues that affect everybody, which all come from social, economic and environmental injustice. If workers believe that unions are relevant to them and their communities, they will join and pay, even if they don’t earn much. So the first challenge is to educate, and talk about politics.

This is not new for trade unions. They have always understood how important it is to educate workers about politics. The GMB union in Britain tried to get seats on school boards in the 1890s. Karl Marx said to the International Workingmen’s Association 150 years ago that workers must understand international politics and fight against injustice.

It is difficult to persuade young people. They have enough problems paying rent and debts. Trade unions really need to reach young people and young people probably need union support most.

Many young people are engaged in grassroots movements around the world, fighting for climate justice and democracy. Young people care about their future and the future of the planet. So why don’t they like the biggest social movement in the world?

Maybe young workers - teenagers and people in their twenties - don’t think older unionists will take their problems seriously. But it is also very difficult to talk about unions at work (because of shifts and workers not staying long in one job).

So the second challenge is for trade unions to meet young people where they are: on the streets, where they relax, and online.

Social media is a cheap and quick way to educate and engage workers. In New York, the Precarious Workforce Initiative developed an app, helped by migrant workers, to give basic labour-rights information and help workers safely to report employers who treat them badly.

News of victory in one country can travel quickly via the internet and social media. Workers get inspiration from international successes in their own work area. In New Zealand/Aotearoa, the government recently passed a law banning zero-contract hours, because of pressure from Unite NZ, which supports hospitality workers. For Robert and his colleagues in London, these victories give them hope that they will win their fight.

Image problems

Trade unions also need to improve their image. The media only talks about them when they go on strike – and then they usually say they are causing problems. The unions have to work very hard to keep the support of the public. Union leaders in the West often don’t reflect the membership – they are usually white, middle-aged men. It is often difficult for workers with disabilities, or from ethnic minorities or the LGBT community to find people from their background to represent them.

And there is often fighting inside and between unions. Between 2008 and 2010, unions in the US spent $140 million fighting about structure, membership, organizing strategies and leadership. They were so busy fighting that they missed a very good opportunity – Barack Obama entering the White House. If they had worked together, they could have made a real difference to workers’ rights. And there is still discrimination in unions. The Center for Union Facts reports that US labour unions faced 13,815 charges of abuse of equal-opportunity rights between 2000 and 2010 (4,248 about race and 3,386 about age.

Time to listen

There is a new generation of active young people: in the Seattle anti-globalization protests, the Occupy movement, the Arab Spring and climate-justice demonstrations at the UN talks. Trade unions need to listen to them.


‘We’re worth it!’ Members of the German ver.di trade union protesting about wage negotiations in April. dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo

There’s a new form of activism between the grassroots campaigning and traditional trade unionism. It grew in North America and is now moving to other Western nations, but it started in the Majority World, where workers have been fighting for decades against political, social and economic injustice not seen in the West for centuries (but now coming back). Many trade unions in the Global South started to fight against colonialism, slavery or apartheid. They are now fighting against global capital. They could tell Western trade unions how to organize, particularly in the areas of shipping and logistics. They are also suffering most from climate change - trade unions in the Global North have not talked about this for years, especially the unions representing workers in the fossil-fuel and nuclear industries. But now they are starting to act, fighting for a just transition to green jobs.

In the West, early trade unions were active in social and community issues. Before the welfare state, British unions helped give education, housing and healthcare to workers and their families. In the Global South today, trade unions help with many similar things. They see their members as ‘whole people’ and fight to help them inside and outside work. Some groups don’t even say they are unions: eg. the Honduran women’s group CODEMUH says it works to help women with their whole life, not only at work.


To be successful in the 21st century, the trade union movement must keep only the best of the past. They must learn from grassroots social movements and join with them to fight together. They must fight for local issues that workers think are important; and at the same time, put pressure on governments and big business with international campaigns. They must end problems of corruption and power imbalance and fight against these same problems in our global economic system. And they must believe that another world is still possible.

Robert’s story has a happy ending. After pressure from the London Hotel Workers, Melia agreed to give him his job back, and to start talks about recognising unions at work. Robert will need courage to return to work and face his bosses, but he feels better with the support of a powerful union.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).