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What Have Unions Ever Done For Us

& where are they now then, eh?


Whether you see Trade Unions as the people who brought you the weekend, a right to pay when you’re off sick and protection from discrimination or just a bunch of working class Northern farts wearing Draylon suits sitting in smoky rooms trying to prevent anyone from making any money, the chances are if you’re over 45 you have an opinion of them, and the Miner’s Strike will polarise you one way or the other.


For those under 45 whose political consciousness has been shaped by the post-Miner’s Strike world, the idea of trade unions is probably no more than that of a passing theoretical interest if that; if you work in the private sector you may never have come across them in your working life. But should you have done so, what would union membership mean to you?


Rights at work have taken centuries – and generations of struggle – to try to find common ground between those who have to work for their living and those who employ workers as part of theirs. From the Combination Acts in the early 19th Century – where any attempted association between workers for a purpose was seen as being ‘in restraint of trade’ and whose penalty was a charge of Criminal Conspiracy – to the Equality Act 2010, which outlawed ‘less favourable’ treatment for those with protected characteristics, the road has been a long one and will not be seen to be anywhere near satisfactory for either employer or employee.


Before we look at the ‘them and us’ situation it is perhaps necessary to define whether you are one of them or one of us; the class descriptions are blurred these days though the actual distinctions are not.


If your livelihood depends on you getting up in the morning and selling your labour for capital, you are working class. The clue is in the question so to speak; you do not have to own whippets or smoke roll-ups or have any genetic predilection to the construction industry or refuse collection. If your food on the table would dry up were you not to get up every day and earn your crust then you are part of the masses, choosing to wash being optional.


The reason you may not like to feel you are working class or identify yourself as such is because of the prejudicial imagery that has long been associated with it – from a media controlled by those who are not working class but would like you to think they once were. However your class is not something of choice, any more than it is something that is fixed forever. Class is not a state of mind; it is simply a state of place and circumstance, and one that may be temporary. To apportion qualitative value to class is where many of the problems that polarise people against each other come in. To believe that being from the Home Counties means you cannot be working class is as ludicrous as thinking that just because you are the son or daughter of a miner you cannot be middle class.


If you employ staff, you are not working class in its true definition as you have a means of income that is not solely dictated by your own labour. This is not to say that you do not work but ultimately you are dependent on your staff working and not merely yourself.


The vast majorities of people in this country are working class and, as such, wish to do their day's work in a way that is not intolerable and allows them a satisfactory or better standard of living for them and their families. As they rarely have a direct financial stake in the success of a business, the profitability is less important than the fact that the job needs to exist tomorrow. The employer, by very virtue of needing to take out more than s/he puts in, needs to try to maximize surplus and minimize cost and here we reach the impasse.


We are pack animals, as distinct from herd animals, so we form small associations that require people to have (fulfil?) their roles for the protection and advancement of the group. We do not see this as some form of outlandish statement; our whole society is very much based around acceptance of the tenet of two heads being better than one. We have family units, social and community groupings as well as a host of idiomatic expressions – many hands make light work and so on. (Someone at this point invariably points out the phrase: ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’ but that is because broth does not require many people to make it!)


When workers feel they are being pushed too hard or do not have the right tools, skills etc. they have 3 options:
1) They can put up with it and keep quiet
2) They can go to their manager and complain
3) They can club together with their colleagues in order to give weight to their grievance(s) and have a degree of safety in numbers.
Putting up with it usually depends on what ‘it’ is but the effects of stress are long established and putting up with stuff is one of the main causes. One single complainant looks like a troublemaker whereas a group looks like a more serious problem. This grouping for better conditions is the heart of trade unionism.


Trade unionism is not about blocking change, it is not about preventing people making money; it is about ensuring that the people who make the money play fair by those who are essential to the process of it being made. A healthy/happy workforce is a productive one; trained, skilled and well-paid workers are more likely to stay. Those treated badly or unfairly lower morale for all and whilst they may leave, few benefit from their departure, at least in the short-term.


The Public Relations job against trade unions over the last 30 years has been so successful that few under 40 would see them as really having any relevance at all in the modern workplace and it is true, as the baby boom generation retires and dies out, union membership is in serious decline. Yet it is interesting to note that the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) currently represents 240,000 businesses, 1/20th of the estimated 4.8 million in the UK. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) however represents 58 trade unions with a total of approximately 6.5 million members and, since estimates of the UK working population range between 33 and 38 million, union representation is considerably higher; roughly equivalent to the entire public sector workforce. TUC and individual union reps are elected, (usually with considerably higher turnouts than the government with whom they negotiate!) but if you look at the mainstream media, the CBI is portrayed as both more representative, and more relevant in dealings with government and industry, than the TUC.


So what’s in it for you? Well – leaving aside the political question of asking not what your union can do for you but what you can do for your trade union – membership does more than entitle you to representation in times of extreme difficulty; it affords you a degree of protection from that difficulty in the first place. Managers are far less likely to deal unfairly with someone who has support; experienced union reps can very often act as mediators in disputes and inform subsequent policies to prevent disputes happening. Unions can help negotiate pay and conditions through collective bargaining using specialist legal knowledge that you are unlikely to have. Some employers even welcome trade union involvement because it does a large amount of Human Resources work for them.


There are also legal requirements entitling you to time off for trade union duties and responsibilities; this includes learning. TUC courses are free for any union rep and cover a wide variety of topics such as Health & Safety, Employment Law, Equalities representation and general courses on being a union rep. []


However, before you go booking that course, your union has to be recognised in the workplace and whilst this may still be common in the public sector it is less so in the private. Help is at hand though. If 10% of your employee area are members of a union, and your firm employs more than 21 people, you can apply to have the union recognised. The union will then check out whether other employees are favourable to a recognised union existing; after all the more people who join, the stronger the block to work on your behalf with management. Companies can agree voluntarily so it may not be an adversarial process. If the employer resists then the union(s) will take care of any balloting necessary; don’t worry, you cannot be discriminated against for trade union membership and activities so you’ll have protection – the law is pretty strong on this and so are the unions, for obvious reasons.


So then down to brass tacks the issue of subscriptions – can you afford to pay for your union membership? Well take a look at the current workplace environment – perhaps a more cogent question would be: Can you afford not to?







Dom Kingsmill-Stocker

About the Writer

Dom has the distinction of having been taught how to dislike the establishment by the establishment itself. Over time he has honed his bile to become a bitter and cynical 40-something passing the stage of grumpy old man at around 36.  Having recently been made redundant he contents himself by shouting at John Humphries to go more for the jugular and telling Paxman that he has gone soft in his old age until such time as someone offers him a job.


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