Part 4 of the Full Marx Library series in the Morning Star newspaper
YES, you should, especially if you’re an employee and certainly if there’s a trade union branch at your workplace and you should do so for a variety of reasons, from personal to political.
Membership will give you protection if things go wrong and provide other material benefits. It will enable you to work with others to make your workplace safer and better. And it is the means by which you can, collectively, protect your wages and secure an improvement in your standard of living.
As Marx himself argued a century and a half ago, in Wages, Price and Profit, the wages struggle is very important. Without it wages would automatically sink to the minimum level required to sustain the individual worker and guarantee the reproduction of labour power. Without it, all workers would be much worse off.
And trades unions are an important vehicle for political change.
Joining a trade union and becoming active in it is more difficult than it was 30 or 40 years ago. There has been a transformation in the character of Britain’s workforce: an enormous shrinkage in large-scale manufacturing (and now in sections of the public sector) and an increase in service occupations in small units with precarious employment.
Women are a growing section of the workforce and have been particularly badly hit by the expansion in part-time and casual work. The level of unionisation is only half what it was in the late 1970s, largely concentrated in the public sector (55 per cent) and manufacturing (20 per cent). Unionisation in the service sector is considerably less — not much more than 10 per cent.
Trade unions also have to contend with a far more challenging legal and political environment than in the 1970s, a generally hostile press and more sophisticated human resources techniques.
Legal restrictions introduced under Margaret Thatcher — including a requirement for secret ballots before strike action and a ban on secondary action — have been made even tighter by the 2016 Trade Union Act.
This will require a minimum 50 per cent turnout of eligible members and in key public services a “yes” vote from 40 per cent of all those entitled to vote before industrial action can be taken; restrictions on picketing, and a requirement for unions to pay employers for check-off deductions of membership fees.
Other changes (including a repeal of the ban on employers hiring agency staff to provide strike cover) are likely to follow through changes in regulations introduced without parliamentary scrutiny.
At the same time there have been some positive changes. The trade union movement is concentrated in fewer, generally stronger and better organised unions. There are also some unions still powerfully organised in essential services (transport, energy, school education).
New sectors such as nurses and junior doctors have also moved into militant action and the increasingly social and interconnected character of production has increased opportunities of leverage. Trades union membership in some areas of the service sector (particularly retail) is also far more concentrated and large scale than previously.
It is precisely these changes — negative and positive — that make joining a trade union more important than ever. It is important also that trade unions develop political awareness among their membership and look outwards, emphasising their vital role in protecting working conditions and helping to secure a decent wage for all employees beyond their own members.
Unions generally provide most members with free legal representation on a range of matters. They often now provide advice, and sometimes representation, on state benefits. Search online with the union’s name and the term “legal services” and there will usually be a direct link. The TUC also provides general advice.
If you’re not an employee, if you are unemployed, a homeworker, retired, or work for yourself, it is still possible to join a trade union, receive some benefits of membership and contribute to the wider political project of which trade unions are a part.
There can even be tax advice for the self-employed from some unions while many now go out of their way to help members campaign with others on local issues. For example, Unite’s Community branches offer a range of benefits and help you link into campaigns in your area.
Trade union membership is not an alternative to political engagement. By definition, trade union activity focuses on particular occupations or workplaces. But unions are an essential part of the process of building a fairer, more just and sustainable society for everyone.