There was a time when being a unionist was meaningful. Back in the early 19th century, the industrial revolution bestowed amazing growth on the world, but conditions for workers were tough. Later, the Victorian city’s factories tempted impoverished agricultural workers to seek their fortune in the industrial miracle, and while the factories certainly offered opportunities, no one wold disagree that workers had a case for making a claim for better conditions and compensation. Trade unions were the ideal vehicle to take this fight to the industrialists; presenting a united front and putting skilled negotiators in charge of negotiating with employers was then, and continues to be today, a good strategy. There is nothing wrong with unions as collective bargaining platforms.
But the trade unions would be more than that. The legalisation of unions in the UK happened in 1871, but it was the 1906 Trade Disputes Act, which exempted trade unions from being sued for tort for damages and induced breach of contract, which made them powerful beyond anything a mere association of workers could ever have hoped for. Pickets became a common sight outside factories and other places of work. With the Labour Party acting as its parliamentary wing the unions became a defining force in the shaping of the 20th century politics. The 1926 general strike and miner’s strikes in 1972 and 1974 saw unions exercise the power they had been given by Parliament to maximum effect, but after the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent led to the downfall of James Callaghan’s Labour government, Margaret Thatcher was swept into Downing Street and took the fight to the unions in a way they had never experienced before. The Conservative government put a number of controls on unions, making it more difficult to strike legally, and thereby undoubtedly believed they had tamed the out-of-control unions – but they quickly adapted and a new generation of unionists were ready to take the up the legal fight. The unions were hurt, but not broken. There are still over 6 million unionised workers in the UK today, and while it is a far cry from the late 1970ies when membership peaked above 13 million, they are still very much part of the political landscape, not least because of their continued ties to the Labour party.
No, where the unions have actually lost is in relevance. Today’s fight is very different from the struggle to ensure worker’s conditions in the 19th and early/mid-20th centuries. The most high-profile union fight in 2016’s UK is about whether the driver or the conductor of a passenger train should operate the doors! Junior doctors cry foul over working hours which make their comfortable student life a bit less flexible. Every strike is clouded in traditional left-wing nonsense and lofty rhetoric about safety of customers and the public at large – but it is hollow and we are not really buying it. A majority of the public do support the junior doctors, but more because they religiously object to cuts and saving in the National Health Service, not because they feel the doctor’s really need weekends off or genuinely believe that the new work practices are unsafe.
The unions of today clearly have no real cause. Only strict followers of Marxist ideology would argue that workers are being exploited, even if this ludicrous accusation against employers are sometimes still used in certain cases. There is no exploitation in a voluntary relationship, Marx’s analysis was profoundly erroneous and even workers in Victorian factories were there because they preferred it to the alternative, most commonly rural life. But equally, it is clear how it was once alluring to see the vast difference in wealth between industrialists and workers as being somehow unjust. So the unions had fertile ground on which to sow the seeds for their movement, and with the help of Parliament they fought battles which, while often misguided, certainly had meaningful purpose. The huge advance in living standard which were enjoyed by the poorest of English society through the 19th and 20th centuries were made possible by the capitalist economy; the wealth creation in the industrial revolution and beyond was achieved because of trade and division of labour, and it lifted millions out of abject poverty. But the unions have been credited with much of this, as if splitting the cake, and not baking it, was the real achievement.
Today, however, there is nothing left of their original purpose, and while it is unlikely that trade unions will ever disappear – not least because of the advantages they have been endowed with by law – they now represent people who are actually quite well off. Across Europe, many traditional worker’s parties have changed their priorities and primarily concern themselves with those who are outside the labour market – students, the unemployed, the handicapped and the elderly. They have realised that workers don’t want or need a struggle for rights anymore, but have become middle class. The unions might as well accept it as well.