OFF the back of the wave of strikes this summer, are we about to see a much-needed revival in the fortunes of unions? There are certainly many activists and commentators that think so and, of course, many more that hope so.

It is likely when the strike statistics for 2022 are eventually published by the Office for National ­Statistics that more than a million days will not have been worked, representing at least a quintupling of what has been the case in each of the last five years.

Strikes have the capacity to revalidate unions’ ­central purpose, increase membership, revitalise workplace organisation, build members’ confidence in their collective capacity, and provide a fillip to ­unions’ general standing in the eyes of the public. So, so far, so good.

Strikes also can provide a focal point for mounting political anger against the cost-of-living crisis when Labour under Sir Keir Starmer has turned even ­further away from supporting unions in their quest for inflation proof pay rises.

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Let’s look at the case of the RMT rail and transport union. It has organised six days of national strike ­action so far. The union has been growing slowly for many years but still managed to recruit more new members on the back of these strikes.

In the last year of the late Bob Crow’s tenure as general secretary (in 2014), RMT membership stood at 83,000. Membership fell back to 79,000 due to widespread redundancies in 2016 before ­increasing year-on-year to 86,00 in 2021. In 2022, the RMT ­recruited over 3000 new members in the course of its industrial action campaign for pay rises and job security. Potential members could see that the union was putting its shoulder to the wheel to defend their interests and took the plunge to join.

In the course of this, RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, has become something of a folk hero as a ­representative for the wider working-class. Like Crow before him, Lynch has engendered a renewal of ­support for unions in the public mind.

But the RMT is a small and somewhat ­idiosyncratic microcosm for the union movement. It has a strong union identity, militant policies and, critically, many of its members – such as its signallers – can wield ­immense strategic leverage which has an ­immediate and massive impact unlike most other union ­members.

Moreover, union membership is a ­revolving door, with recruits during strikes being gross gains but not necessarily net gains.

Fellow transport union, the TSSA, has also seen many new recruits join this year in its pay ­campaigns but still reported in June 2022 that its overall ­membership still fell. Meanwhile, sister union, the Aslef union, with 96% membership density amongst train drivers, has very little room to increase its numbers.

Consequently, it’s important to not only look at the wider union movement but also the historical picture. Union membership reached an absolute and relative highpoint in 1979 with 13.2 million members (55% density) and collective bargaining covered 70% of the workforce.

In 2021, there were 6.5m members (23% density) with 13% density in the private sector and 50% in the public ­sector. Just 26% of workers had their pay and conditions determined by collective bargaining.

These figures for 2021 not only ­represent declines since 1979 but also since 2017 when, for four years, there were slight increases in absolute and ­relative union membership, ­representing a plateauing out. This also highlights that the gains made as a result of the ­pandemic, where many non-union ­workers joined seeking health and safety protection, were not permanent, net gains. It also highlights that despite massive resources put into recruitment, retention and organising in the last 25 years, unions have had to run very fast to even stand still.

The National: Crowds marching from Scotland to London during the general strike - Image: Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesCrowds marching from Scotland to London during the general strike - Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

All this serves to emphasise the ­considerable extent of the challenge facing unions if they are to return to a position of fulfilling their historic role of effectively protecting and advancing workers’ rights. Strikes have a place in all of this but so much more is needed such as changes in legislation and political culture.

For strikes to have a positive impact upon building membership and ­influence, certain things have to happen. First, given the restrictive legal framework governing industrial action, various thresholds have to be surpassed. This is no easy matter as many ballots in previous years, as well as quite a few this year, have failed to do so.

Second, there are potential legal ­challenges from employers as to ­whether the ballots were carried out in ­accordance with the legal regulations. Mick Whelan, Aslef general secretary, noted this month in his union’s journal that: “We are ­getting the inevitable legal challenges on petty things but, rather than drag the ­process through the courts, which could take ages, we are simply re-balloting to get ­bigger and stronger mandates.”

Third, the mandates have to be ­implemented. No worker wants to go on strike given the loss of wages involved but, for the positive impact of a strike to be demonstrated, mandates for action must be implemented. Unfortunately, settlements of increased wages without striking attract a lot less media attention.

Fourth, and probably most ­importantly to make a big positive impact, strikes have to win their demands. Defeated strikes are not good for recruitment. The bigger the wins, the bigger the ­positive ­demonstration effect. Unite has been ­doing well in this regard, with many of its such publicised settlements gaining ­inflation-plus deals.

So, an awful lot has to fall into place for strikes to have this positive impact. That is why it is right to cast doubt on whether a summer of strikes, on their own, can take unions back to where they want – and need – to be.

That is also why we must look at the wider situation. We’ve had false dawns before – like in 2011 over the public ­sector pensions strikes or the militant ­actions of new, small independent unions organising gig economy workers – about the revival of the union movement.

We need to think big. Preventing ­further restrictions on unions ability to organise industrial action, as Truss ­intends is one thing. Repealing the ­plethora of existing laws preventing unions from lawfully ­aggregating their resources is another. Both are necessary but that is far from the full picture. What is needed is a complete resetting of the relationship between unions, employers and government.

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The periods when union ­membership and strength rose and fell reflect ­several factors. The period of the “Great ­Unrest” before and after the First World War saw union membership and strikes rise ­dramatically. The defeat of the 1926 ­general strike was cemented by ­restrictions imposed by the Tories’ Trade Disputes Act 1927 and the Great ­Depression of the 1930s.

The return of full employment with the onset of the Second World War was ­followed by economic expansion and saw union membership climb rapidly. ­Government policy, within certain ­limits, was to encourage union membership and collective bargaining, especially in the public sector. Private sector employers often also came to accept unions as the norm.

Come the 1980s and onwards, the tale is a sorry but well known one of ­Thatcherite Tory attacks and a somewhat lax Labour attitude. While the Tories increasingly deregulated all aspects of the economy and society, the one area which saw increased regulation were the unions. Unions internal affairs became subject to legal restrictions as did their ability to organise industrial action. Then Labour did little to change this.

This potted history highlights the ­actions and attitudes of government and employers are critical to providing a more or less fertile and permissive environment for unions to operate in.

This is why any long term, ­significant union revival requires a change in ­government leading to changes in ­legislation and public policy. Putting ­regulations on industrial action back to their pre-1979 is just one of these. Many others – to name just a few – will ­concern much stronger legally enforceable rights to union recognition and collective bargaining (especially ­sector collective bargaining), reversal of ­privatisations, contracting out and marketisations, ­re-introduction of wages councils to ­govern minimum terms and conditions of employment in hard to organise ­sectors, and enhanced workers’ rights over ­dismissal and redundancy.

In public procurement and state ­subsidies, abiding by the terms of sectoral collective bargaining must become part of the legal obligation upon winning a tender or gaining a grant.

All these will be necessary but not sufficient to see the required scale of revival of unions. Put simply, unions and workers can have many enhanced rights but if they do not have the ability to enforce them, they’ll hardly be worth the paper they’re written upon.

Take the legal right to sectoral ­bargaining. Its great virtue is that by having all employers in a sector be ­compelled to implement the terms and conditions agreed between their employer federation and a union, wages are largely taken out of competition between them. There’s nothing to stop them paying more but there is something to stop them paying less. But if the union negotiating the agreement is in a weak position because it does not have majority membership in most of the employers, the value of the agreement to its members will be also be weak.

This is where the idea of a union ­default comes in. Under the default, and after attaining the minimum membership threshold levels, all workers in a bargaining unit (workplace, company, sector) are defaulted into membership with the right to opt out afterwards - so this is not ­compulsory membership as with the closed shop.

But it reverses the non-union default that presently exists where all ­workers are non-union members until they join a ­union. This allows employers through substitution (for example, works ­councils) and suppression (selective ­sacking ­activists) to coax and cajole workers into not joining unions. When the majority of workers become union members, it sets a new social norm of what is seen as the right and proper thing to do.

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Therefore, a default would quickly boost membership so that we could then see unions getting above inflation level deals, stop the race to the bottom and stop non-unionised workers’ pay and ­conditions pulling down those of ­unionised workers so the opposite could happen – unionised workers would pull up non-unionised workers. Otherwise, unions will be forever scrapping around for crumbs off the bosses’ table, more akin to collective begging than collective bargaining.

Such an idea indicates that there is much more needed to be done that just cheerleading for striking workers and hoping this militancy spreads.

Of course, the practical problem is ­finding a political party that is willing to adopt such a portfolio of policies – and then gets elected to office on that basis. Currently, Labour under Starmer is not such a party but Labour under Jeremy Corbyn was.

Professor Gregor Gall is a visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds