Yesterday I went to the Durham Miner's Gala. Me and about 149,999 others. It was my first visit. I'm not a native of the north east and I hadn't realised exactly how much of a big deal it was for fellow trade union fans.
I joined Unite about 6 years ago, when I was 21 and unemployed. At the time, I didn't know many other people in trade unions. It wasn't common in my age group, and still isn't hugely common in my industry. For a woman with sympathies lying left, it came naturally to join a union, and even more than that – to talk (sometimes quite a lot) about being in a union. As I saw it, if I were to start a company, and then employ people in that company, my main aim would be to make a profit. It doesn't mean to say that I'd deliberately make my employees miserable, because I'm a human being who enjoys gardening and hates conflict. But, when it comes down to it, and especially if my hypothetical business is struggling, profit might take precedence over the wellbeing of my employees. I haven't ever really seen it as an 'us versus them', employers vs. employees issue, but I tried to understand why it is that the rights of employees get overlooked, and what the best thing to do about it would be. And my conclusion was: join a union.
Unions can still do a lot. Disputes between employers and employees can often be 'tribunal-based', which is to say that tribunals are often used to enforce employee rights. The downside of this is that employment tribunals rarely order re-employment, so you might find that you've won your case, but are out of a job. Weighing up this risk together with the fact that claim fees and hearing fees will generally apply means that plenty of people let the matter slide, and either put up with the issue that would bring them to a tribunal, or they search for a new job. Understandably, this is more likely to happen in the case of employees on a lower wage, and while compensation from tribunals is tied to your income, claim and hearing fees are fixed, meaning those on a higher wage stand to gain a lot more from taking their employer to a tribunal. Besides offering advice in situations like this, unions often cover the claim and hearing fees, along with offering college courses, retirement advice, and a lot more besides.
Today though, I can take part in my union lottery, I can get good rates on home and car insurance, and I can enter competitions to win shopping vouchers. None of these are bad things, but they are also not the reason I joined a union in the first place. Related to this, I find it difficult to get personally involved in my union. Realistically, the only time we'd ever have any kind of contact is if I had an issue at work. I don't think it's not all over for the unions, but at the same time, I think they need to head back towards politics.
A wider issue, and one that is perhaps harder to fix, is that the nature of work is changing in Britain. When my dad started work, his notice period was 6 months, and there was an understanding that he'd be staying in the job for years – and indeed, he stayed for almost two decades. But it's now more common to go to university, meaning that more and more people are leaving their local region at a fairly early age, making them more likely to consider moving regions, or perhaps even countries, in order to get the 'right job'. This kind of mobility just wasn't there when trade unions were at their strongest in Britain, and has led to a kind of 'If you don't like your job, find another one' mentality. In the long term, this can be bad for employers too, as unhappy employees will tend to vote with their feet, but depending on the industry involved, companies can patch up the employee leak with a steady supply of graduates. For employees, however, it can mean that they are more willing to move away to find a more suitable job (perhaps in the same industry, but with a better employer) instead of holding on to the job they have and striving to improve it.
Increasingly, my feeling of disconnection is also dictated by my personal circumstances. I'm self-employed now, and while (as far as I know) this doesn't mean I have to leave my union, there are some unions I wouldn't be able to join because I no longer have an employer and because this situation is unlikely to change. I intend to stay in a union despite the fact that I'm now my own boss, partly because I still think I will encounter issues that my union could advise me on, and partly because it's a wider issue in society – people being treated unfairly at work is still an issue that affects me, even if it doesn't affect me personally. There's also the fact that I don't consider myself a supporter of the Labour party as things stand, and while I can live with the strong links between Labour and trade unions (and would welcome even stronger links), one of my impressions from yesterday was that while like a lot of people there, I would very much like to see Corbyn as leader of the party, I didn't feel totally justified in having that opinion given my lack of support for the party. Equally, though, I don't strongly side with any one political party, so maybe I'm bound to feel a bit disconnected in any case.
The day got me thinking, definitely, which is usually a good thing. If only to keep me amused while I dig potatoes on the allotment.