There is still a need for unions

While the current generation are the most vocal on their terms and conditions of work than any in our history, there is still a need for unions to ensure lawfulness and fairness, says Kehlan Kirwan.

As a journalist, you get to hear some pretty great stories but you also hear the sad tales, the heartbreakers.

I remember doing my final dissertation at university on the UK coal miners’ strike of 1984-85. I listened to a lot of stories. Families ripped apart at the seams. One father and son who hadn’t spoken in 20 years because of it.

Communities utterly destroyed, many of which never recovered and who voiced their anger in the recent Brexit vote.

The spectre of Thatcher coming back to bite her own party in the end. At the heart of it all was a battle for the union. The fight for the common man or the grandiose ideas of the looney left, depending on your point of view.

The story of unions is the story of the working class, some would say. The collective bargaining of the low paid against the power and influence of the so-called 1%.

So what ever happened to the union?

In many countries around the world over the past forty years we’ve seen a sharp decline in union workers. Even in places like Germany, known for its union workforce, there has been a big decline in membership since the early nineties.

In the United States nearly a quarter of the workforce was in a union in the early 80’s, now just over 11% of the workforce is part of a union.

The decline in unions has been happening steadily over the past 30 years.

As workplace health and safety increased the need for unions has been eroded away. Governments have cracked down on strikes and the legal ability for unions to initiate them.

Recently we’ve seen the juxtaposed stories of unions. Dunnes Stores workers going on strike to fight zero-hour contracts.

Then we had the baffling strike action of Luas drivers, who poorly explained why exactly they need such a massive pay rise. In both cases, unions were the centerpiece of the public discussion.

There is, as with all things, pros and cons.

If you look at the essence of a union, then it is something that represents the concerns of those in it and allows the grouping together of like minded people.

Its purpose is to stand up for those members and act as the single focal point in any discussions. At their height, unions could bring entire countries to a standstill.

All-out strike actions could stop everything from bin collection to transport and electricity. It had the power.

In many ways, that legacy has been one that has never shaken off. The idea that a small minority of people can bring things to a standstill doesn’t seem to fit in the guise of modern society.

It’s painted as anti-progress.

Labour laws have contributed greatly too. Ireland has relatively good labour laws.

Legislation is designed to ensure security, pay and conditions. Workers are protected well under the law and the need for large unions to fight on behalf of their members has fallen. EU directives have also added to this as well.

As labour laws were built on by EU legislation, it drove a general improvement in workspace protection.

In places like the United States, it has been the opposite. Beginning in the late 1940s there has been a protracted and obvious war on unions.

The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 brought about laws which effectively made boycotts and strikes illegal. Since then the federal labour laws have improved but are still nowhere near their European counterparts. Yet the decline of the union continues.

Lobbying money from powerful corporations and the strike-busting attitudes of presidents like Ronald Reagan have ensured that unions no longer affect the political arena like they used to.

The time of the union may be coming to an end, but their legacy may not.

In 2013, Price Waterhouse Coopers (PwC) conducted a massive study throughout the company to try and understand why younger workers were not hanging around to climb the corporate ladder.

They were leaving the company after just a few years and not worried about staying to move up in the company. What they found could have been in any union manifesto.

They wanted transparent pay and promotion levels, greater flexibility to working hours. The demands of high-pressure work weren’t worth what was being put into the job.

All of the things generations of unions have fought were now part of the work culture of young people in the modern workplace.

While the ideas and the sentiments of unions are shared, it does not, however, mean people are still willing to join them. There is a very simple explanation for this.

Of all the generations of workers since the mid-1800’s, none have been more vocal in what they really want than the current generation. The notion that you should just be happy to have a job is gone.

People are willing to walk away from jobs, sometimes well-paid jobs, if the culture isn’t a right fit for them.

They have grown to have a very overt belief in their own self-worth and aren’t afraid to let companies know it. Without banding together, they have developed collective ideals on what good work practices are.

Unions are seen as unnecessary in the face of a new wave of worker democratisation. That means companies need to have a closer connection with workers.

It’s not that employees have anything against unions, it’s just that they see the greater control they have of their workplace.

These worker concerns will only become more pronounced in the years to come as the wealth divide increases and people merge work and life together in a greater effort for personal happiness.

That isn’t to say the unions don’t still have their place. Collective bargaining and worker relations are as important now as they were forty years ago.

People, particularly ones who work in large companies, will still need to be represented to the decision makers. The balance is still important to have, protection not protectionism.

Modern workplaces can no longer survive as dictatorial spaces. If you keep pushing down and down on employees it only aids in becoming a less attractive place to be. Once you paint people into a corner there is only one place left go.

The history of unions cast a shadow over the modern working place. What we see now as the ‘millennial workplace’ has its roots in many union movements throughout the past 100 years.

The difference now is that worker movement from job to job is no longer a select thing, it’s everywhere. As workers become more pronounced in their job demands, unions become less needed.

However, the need for unions is still apparent in countries who wilfully encourage the dismantling of people’s conditions in the workplace.

Last year the International Trade Union Federation announced the 10 worst countries in the world for workers’ rights.

At the same time, they announced the countries where there was a clear decline in worker conditions. The UK appeared in the top ten.

The need for unions has not gone away.


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