Bill Adams: Trade unions still essential in changing world

WE stand on the brink of a modern industrial revolution. The workplace is changing with new technologies, from autonomous vehicles to algorithms and AI, reshaping the way in which we work, and the way we are employed.

What is the future of the TUC 150 years after its inception?
What is the future of the TUC 150 years after its inception?

The past weekend saw the Trades’ Union Congress – a collective of 49 trade unions with 5.5 million members – celebrate the 150th anniversary of our first Congress, convened on a June day in Manchester 1868.

Now, as the world transforms around us, we are engaged in the debate over how we can help shape technological changes to benefit working people, their families and communities.

But this is nothing new. Over the course of its 150-year history, the TUC has weathered many drastic changes in the world of work, and we can do so again. After all, the TUC itself was hardly the product of a tranquil era in the history of industry.

In the 18th century, the rapid expansion of new industry drew huge numbers of women, children, rural workers and immigrants into the workforce. The conditions were exploitative, the hours long.

Collective bargaining was outlawed, but 1818 saw the first attempt to set up a general union of workers: The Philanthropic Society. Though its leaders were quickly arrested, other unions began to emerge across the country.

The next step was national organisation, and, after a first attempt at a congress in Sheffield (leading to the foundation of the historic Sheffield Trades Council), June 2, 1868, saw the birth of the TUC at its congress in Manchester.

Since its conception, the TUC has secured rights that many people now take for granted, such as a limit on working hours and a minimum holiday entitlement, along with a minimum wage.

On the 150th anniversary of its creation, the TUC is celebrating, not just its own achievements, but the achievements and stories of so many individual trade unionists.

Stories like Pauline Cawood’s, who has been a train driver in Yorkshire for 20 years and was one of the first members of the Women’s Committee within ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, helping to secure equal pay for her and her co-workers.

Stories like Mohammad Taj’s, who became the first Asian president of the TUC in 2013 after being a bus driver in Bradford for 39 years. He was awarded the OBE for his union activities in 2016.

These days, trade unionists face fewer arrests, and children in the UK no longer toil away on looms for 14 hours a day. Times have changed, but the TUC’s aims have not. So long as there are working people, the TUC will make sure their voices are heard.

Whilst the working day may not be as long as when the TUC held its first Congress, the precarious nature of employment today is something unseen in recent history.

Approximately 20 percent of job growth in Yorkshire since 2011 has been part of the new gig economy. For working people on zero hours contracts, there are many barriers to representation; it’s no longer a case of walking into a factory of 6,000 people, calling them to a meeting and having collective strength. These barriers are reflected in union membership, which has approximately halved in the last 40 years.

There is hope however. New unions are springing up, and workplaces that were previously devoid of democracy are having a much-needed injection of it. Ryanair pilots achieved union recognition earlier this year after a six-year effort; foster carers are looking to organise; and the recent McDonald’s strikes illustrate that even those on the most exploitative contracts have the ability to stand up for their rights.

Trade unions are not a thing of the past, indeed, as the workplace continues to change in new and unexpected ways, they are needed now more than ever, to ensure that whatever changes, working people have their voice.

After a century and a half of changing the world of work for the better, the TUC won’t stop fighting for working people.

Bill Adams is the Regional Secretary for TUC Yorkshire & the Humber.