Throughout the proud history of trade unions, we have been vehicles of positive change. As a union, we make workplaces safer, smarter and stronger. We help businesses compete globally, deliver public services more efficiently and encourage long-term thinking.
But our opportunities to influence are diminishing. Union membership in the private sector has been languishing around 15% for a number of years and we must transform our approach if we are to change that.
Positive engagement with employees is about good business. It’s about trade union members shaping their workplace and sharing the rewards of success. And it will only happen if we talk openly about the role of constructive trade unionism.
We can’t do this on our own – we need trade unions, businesses and government to design, provide and promote a partnership framework.
We’ve seen that approach work in sectors such as car manufacturing – trade unions as partners understanding and meeting the industry’s challenges. But it’s not just the policy levers that government has that are important – it’s how the government acts too. There’s also a role for the civil service and public sector more widely as employers who can drive change too.
Helping employee engagement and consulting with employers isn’t about avoiding confrontation. It’s about making sure that when we do take action our arguments are solid and our support is strong.
Community was recently in dispute with Tata Steel over the closure of their final salary pension scheme. All the steel unions had worked in partnership with Tata to tackle the challenges facing the steel industry. But on the pension issue, Tata got it wrong.
It was because of our strong working relationship with the company that the support for strike action was unequivocal – over 90%. Our members let the company know their strength of feeling.
Tata got back around the table and we secured the future of that scheme for the thousands of workers who would have been affected.
There are many steps we need to take to rebuild the trade union movement in the private sector And to make trade union membership relevant to the millions of people who have yet to join us.
We need to remind people beyond our movement of the good things that unions do. We need to set out a positive vision that goes beyond the union movement – to our members, potential members and employers.
It needs to be a vision that gives hope when faced by a changing world. A vision that the workplace can be better, that work can be secure and rewarding and that trade unions can make that happen.
That way we can create a better working world.
Roy Rickhuss is general secretary of Community.