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Transforming trade unionism in the modern world

John Park
2nd September 2015

When I became a trade union member a month shy of my 16th birthday in 1989 in Rosyth Royal Dockyard, every one of the other 150 or so apprentices joined too. We were entering a workplace that had 6,000 employees where you could name the small handful of people who were not union members.

Beyond Rosyth, many of my former schoolmates were finding it difficult to get a job as the homegrown Tory recession of the 1990s was starting to bite. Most of them had never heard of the terms ‘self-employed’ or ‘freelancing’, never mind thought about working that way. These days, it is the other way round – most young people have never heard of a trade union, let alone thought about joining one. Many young people are enthusiastic about working for themselves and are continuously developing new skills and ideas.

There has been a sharp increase in freelance and self-employed workers in the United Kingdom over the decade and that number is expected to reach around 10 million in the next five years. That poses huge questions for the kind of society that we might live and work in in the future but also provides an opportunity for organisations like mine to consider how to support these workers individually and bring them together collectively. These are not just questions for the trade union movement; the Labour party too must think very carefully about its response and ensure that our shared values ensure Labour is not just the modern workers’ party but also the party for the modern worker.

In Community, we regularly see people leaving traditional industries and moving to work for themselves. Some by choice, while others are having to set up on their own as routes into traditional employment become less accessible. The test for Community is to ensure that those who have benefited from trade union membership in a traditional sense feel the support provided by their union is relevant to their new journey.

Some specialised trade unions, such as Bectu, have excelled in providing new services and a collective voice in their sector. The challenge for a general trade union like Community is to be relevant to the emerging freelance and self-employed workforce that is not currently supported by a union in a specific industry. That is why our general secretary Roy Rickhuss announced at our recent conference in Glasgow that Community will become the union for the self-employed. We will embark on a process of transformation that ensures we are not just continuously relevant to our current members but that we also develop a modern offer for workers in this changing world.

That offer cannot be plucked from thin air; it has to be what people want. But, most importantly, it must have roots in traditional trade unionism too – helping workers to advance their careers through new skills, enhancing and promoting job security and giving people a collective voice at work.

The world of work is changing. We cannot stand still and watch that change. If we do, not only will we lose the opportunity to grow a new generation of trade union members we will also be doing a great disservice to our many members over the years who have built our union and who expect no less than for us to strive for a better working world.