Leading Article: Wake up, unions, there's a mighty job to do

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It's a frustrating spectacle, the opening of TUC Conference in Blackpool this year. The journalists still gather, the cameras still roll, and BBC2 still devotes hours of the daytime schedules to cover the debates from oration to ovation. But apart from providing us with a little street theatre, the capers of the trade unions - and in particular their leaders - seem to have less and less relevance to lives we lead.

If the big trade union barons keep drifting on their present course, they will preside over the demise of the trade union movement. Those schooled in the memories of the Seventies strikes will shed few tears. However, the complete collapse of trade unionism in Britain would be a tragedy. There is still so much of worth for unions to do, if their leaders could only raise their blinkered eyes and look forward rather than backwards. Now, as much as ever, the British workforce could benefit from the help and support of an intelligent trade union. But it will take a lot more imagination and initiative from the union mainstream to change direction and turn their fortunes around.

Employment legislation has done much to emasculate the trade unions in the past 10 years. No more strikes without ballots, no more secondary picketing. And in certain areas - notably GCHQ - no more trade unions at all. But government policy has only formed a small part of the changes affecting the trade union movement in the past few decades. Far more striking has been the impact of economic change - and the complete failure of most of the big trade unions to adapt to the modern world.

Nothing better epitomises the unions' mistakes than their declining membership over the past 20 years. Down from 12 to seven million - 25 per cent of the workforce - union numbers have suffered from the decline in men's jobs in manufacturing, the rise in women's employment, in part-time and temporary work, and in the service sector.

But an agile trade union movement should have been able to respond to these industrial changes and recruit new members in the new, emerging occupations. After all, part-time women, insecure temporary employees, and low-paid workers in the services could do with union help every bit as much as their brothers and husbands on the factory floor. But trapped in their old obsession with protecting traditional men's jobs, and paying the price for their historical refusal to encourage the unionisation of women's work, they have sat by and watched their subscriptions fall.

Nor have they managed to adjust to the end of their traditional role even in industries where membership remains high. National pay bargaining - the old arena in which union leaders strutted their stuff - has gone in many industries already, and may be on the way out in others. Throughout the public and private sectors pay and conditions are increasingly negotiated at a regional level, within firms, or even directly with different individuals. In an economy where human capital matters more and more, individual contracts with each of us paid according to our talents and negotiating tenacity are likely to become more rather than less common.

So the old purpose of the trades unions - to act as a countervailing monopoly to the industrial monopoly of the employer - is no longer relevant. Many, watching the platitudes mouthed by union leaders on the conference floor in Blackpool this week, will wonder whether unions will ever be relevant again.

The tragedy is that unions should have more to do now than ever. Thousands of employees suffer from job insecurity and anxiety about their careers and working lives. More will do so in future, as we become used to switching employers and even switching occupations throughout our lives.

Today, just as a hundred years ago, employees should be joining trade unions to find security. Only now that security can't be provided by protecting traditional jobs and wages. Instead, workers will seek security through the opportunity to re-skill or acquire the qualifications they need to get promoted, and through social insurance. Doing together what we cannot do alone, trade unions should be able to provide us with services that we would struggle to find or afford on our own.

Take pensions. As we switch from one employer to another, company pensions are not much use to us. Unions should all be able - as some do - to offer appropriate, reliable pensions designed for the kinds of people and professions they represent. Training too, could be well provided and validated by the union that knows exactly the kinds of qualifications needed by its members. Some trade unions are already exploring these areas. Many unions have already begun to play the role of friend in the workplace; the one who gives us the legal advice we need, backs us when we resist discrimination, harassment or undue stress, warns us if we are entitled to more redundancy payments, and represents us when something goes wrong.

John Monks, the TUC leader, at least understands the new role trade unions must play (he has been exploring ways to expand union membership into non traditional sectors, as well as new forms of co-operation with employers), even if he has not yet had the strength or support to turn things round. Glimmers of light are starting to emerge.

Ultimately there should be a positive and prosperous future for the trade unions. The labour movement as personified by T Blair is on the up and up. The trade unions should be able to do the same. Trade unions began as craft collectives to train and skill those who entered the profession. They developed, too, as mutual societies, providing financial support and protection for members in times of hardship and need. Now their future lies in returning to those roots.