This week, the country has been plunged into travel chaos as thousands of members of RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers) go on strike.
While a lot of news coverage of the strikes has focused on the disruption this industrial action is causing – how it is impacting the travel to Glastonbury, key workers, the hospitality sector, students getting to exams – the coverage has also sparked a growing conversation about the value of unions.
The RMT’s general secretary Mike Lynch has been causing a stir with strong appearances on broadcast platforms all week, and recent analysis of Google search data found that searches for ‘join union’ exploded to 184% – the highest search level in over a year.
The analysis, by recruitment experts Workello reveals that there has been an unprecedented increase in Brits looking to sign up to a trade union. The data also found that searches for ‘how to strike’ have risen 135% since the strikes began.
The point of strike action is to cause disruption, and many people feel the action is both justified and necessary in the face of cuts to jobs, conditions, pay and pensions.
Polling in June by YouGov found that British people are divided over the strikes. Half of respondents said they opposed rail workers striking over pay and conditions, while a third said they supported it.
There was a big difference across age groups. Half (49%) of respondents aged 18-24 said they supported strikes. Of those aged 50-64, 32% said they strongly opposed rail workers going on strike
So, if you’ve been inspired by the industrial action you have seen over the last few days and are wondering if similar action could be possible in your industry – the first step is to join a union.
We asked some experts for tips on joining a union, and also the reasons why you should.
What is the purpose of unions?
Becky Wright, the executive director of Unions 21, says unions give people a stronger and more independent voice at work.
‘They are made up of ordinary members who come together to negotiate with their employer for a better time at work,’ she tells Metro.co.uk.
‘Where unions have a crucial part of our society, we can see more stable work, better conditions and reduced gender and racial pay gaps.
‘Unions are pushing and campaigning everyday to make workplaces greener, more sustainable and inclusive. Union workplaces are safer and healthier.’
Peter Turnbull, Professor of management and industrial relations at the University of Bristol, explains that people tend to think of unions looking after the ‘vested interests’ of their members – like pay, benefits, health and safety at work – but he says they also wield a ‘sword of justice’ by campaigning on general social issues.
‘For example, the rights of women, disabled workers, minorities, transport policy, social benefits, the state of the NHS and public services, etc,’ he says. ‘Hence why most unions are affiliated to the Labour Party and have a political fund.
‘That said, there are different types of unions – most in the UK are “general unions”, some organise workers in a specific industry or occupation.’
Why are unions important?
While many people assume unions are no longer important, Professor Turnbull says this certainly isn’t the reality.
‘All the research shows that trust in management is higher when there is a union in the workplace,’ he says. ‘Workers have the confidence to talk to their union rep about any concerns, they know there is an independent check on management actions, etc.
‘It’s one thing for the company to say we need to do X, it’s something else for the union to say we agree with X, or we need to do Y.’
So, how does strike action come into this?
‘Strike or industrial action is only the last resort and an important, democratic part of our society,’ says Becky.
‘People should have the opportunity to withdraw labour if they’re not being treated well or listened to.
‘Countries that clamp down on this action usually are more repressive and authoritarian. By joining your union, you will combine with colleagues to make your workplace better.
‘Alongside this, there will be access to a range of education and career development and the opportunity to get involved in lots of ideas and work.’
How to join a union
If there’s a union at your work, you can ask the trade union representative about joining. Their contact details may be in your company handbook, intranet site, or on the union noticeboard.
The union rep will tell you if you’re eligible to join and give you a membership form to fill in.
Trade union contact details
You can search a list of unions and their contact details put together by the Certification Officer, the independent organisation responsible for the legal regulation of unions.
You can also use the TUC’s interactive tool to help you find a trade union in your workplace, or one which covers your type of job.
Trade union membership subscriptions
Your union will charge a union membership fee (‘membership sub’) to finance the work of the union. This can be the same amount for all employees, or may be based on how much you’re paid.
How can unions benefit workers?
According to Professor Turnbull, union workers are generally paid more than non-union workers. He adds that there is lots of research out there on what unions do – from improving safety and reducing inequality, to making workplaces more productive and providing more training and new equipment.
‘Research shows that unions are better thought of as the anvil rather than the hammer – they’re often better at protecting what workers have, resisting erosion in pay and benefits, as opposed to “pushing up” wages,’ he explains.
‘We’ve had the longest decline in real wages in the UK following the financial crisis (to present day) since record began in the late 19th century. When inflation is low (say 2%) and you get a low pay rise (say 1%), your standard of living declines by it’s a gradual erosion, you cut back on expenditure and you can still cope.
‘When petrol is almost £2 a litre, electricity/gas prices rocketing, and general inflation pushing 10%, everyone can see/feel the pinch.
‘Put this in the context of growing inequality, and workers will look to their union to do some hammering.’
How can unions help amid the cost of living crisis?
Professor Turnbull makes it clear that it is actually very difficult to strike in the UK, due to ‘restrictive’ labour laws.
‘So, workers have to be really determined,’ he says.
‘Unions win the vast majority of strike ballots, but most ballots in favour of a strike are not followed by action.’
Instead, what usually happens is the parties go back to the negotiating table. It may mean that management have a better sense of how upset or determined the workforce might be.
‘What’s different today,’ says the Professor, ‘is the lack of wriggle room. Firms have been hit by Covid, just as workers have suffered a long-term decline in real wages and pandemic cutbacks and the cost of living crisis.
‘It’s often difficult to say who has won or lost a dispute, but it’s often more about shifting the relationship between the parties.
‘We know there is a knock-on effect from strike action over time for the same group of workers – they become emboldened – and for other workers who may say that if railway workers can get a better deal, maybe they can too.
‘At some point, we have to recognise that we can’t leave all this to “market forces”, or trying to strengthen the hand of one party vs the other.
‘If you ask the ordinary worker how their working life is better today that it was 10 or 20 years ago, what would they say?
‘We know that different people and generations want different things from work. Whether they see unions as the route to a better working life is an open question.’
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