Brendan Barber: History is on the side of trade unions

Taken from a speech given at City University, in London, by the TUC general secretary
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The Independent Online

Eight or nine years ago, the title for my speech might have been "Do British trade unions have a future?".

For then there was a growing questioning - and not only on the political right - as to whether trade unions had had their day. Too many people could be heard to say things like: "Unions were, of course, very important once upon a time, but their job has been done. The age of mass production is over. The modern world is all about individual relationships, and unions are going to wither away."

And there was at least some evidence to support that view. Union membership had fallen every year from its post-war peak in 1980. The government had cut unions almost entirely out of the political loop, and their electoral strategists were still convinced that attacking unions was a vote-winner.

Yet our membership has now stopped falling. That is a significant achievement. Something must be going right for us.

Union membership has fallen sharply among young people at work. Some say this is a result in a change of attitudes among young people. However, union density among young people is relatively high in the public sector. Unions here have made a successful appeal to young people. But the public sector employs relatively few young people. This rather suggests that what we are seeing has more to do with the places where young people work than attitudes based on age. Our problem is not so much that unions don't appeal to young people, but that trade unions are not well organised in the workplaces where young people are employed.

Union decline has most to do with the changing economic and industrial structure of the country, rather than workers walking away from unions.