Trade Unions and Economic Inequality

Are trade unions relevant in 21st century Britain? This and many other questions are answered by the authors of this timely and well presented report

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About the book

What is the point of trade unions? What do they deliver? Are trade unions relevant in 21st century modern society? These and many other questions are answered by the authors of this timely and well presented report, made possible by a kind donation from the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust.

Lydia Hayes and Tonia Novitz begin by recoding the consistent popularity of trade unions. And yet, despite this popularity, trade union membership has declined and the number of workers who currently have their terms and conditions of work negotiated by a trade union has fallen dramatically.

According to the authors, this decline has been shaped by trade union laws which inhibit trade union recruitment, activity and collective bargaining. Attacks on trade union activities by politicians and misrepresentation in the media has fuelled the decline.

The result has been a dramatic increase in levels of economic inequality, reflected in the fact that income differences between top earners and those on the lowest wages are now higher than at any time since records began. The UK now ranks as one of the most unequal societies in the developed world and, according to the authors, current levels of inequality have far exceeded the point at which inequality is proven to be socially corrosive.

So what is to be done? According to the report, as reflected in many of the statistics and graphs provided, there is an historic link between strong trade unionism and more equal societies. Without trade unions, the realities of working life mean that individual workers are under pressure to simply accept the pay and conditions that an employer presents to them. To do otherwise risks missing out on the chance of a job or being dismissed. The bargaining power of trade unions has the potential to defend existing employment conditions, so that new workers are not brought in on lower rates of pay or forced to accept other terms which are inferior.

Nor do the authors simply address the question of pay. They argue that trade unions also impact on issues relating to health, discrimination and security at work as well as encouraging wider political engagement in society.

In an effort to re-boost the role of trade unions in society, the authors conclude with a 6 point policy programme aimed at ensuring that trade unions are once again at the heart of economic, social and industrial policy in the UK.


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This publication has been publishes as an article in the Institute of Employment Rights journal, published by Pluto Journals. More information on the journal can be found on the journal website here.

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