Jo Phillips and David Seymour are about to publish their new book, Why Join a Trade Union? Jess Freeman speaks to the authors and finds out about the futility of strikes, why women are under-represented and why unions aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.
What is the point of a trade union?
David Seymour: You need unions because people work, and because people work for other people. Obviously, if we all tilled our own little patches of soil and all manufactured things for ourselves and bartered with everything, you don't need unions.
Jo Phillips: More people are affected by strikes than are probably members of unions these days. Yet, as we move into economic uncertainty and job insecurity there is a very valid argument that people need the protection of unions. You are undoubtedly stronger if you are united and work together rather than trying to fight a bullying boss. Within the next year or two people are going to be in that position where they are too frightened of losing their job to complain. Some things you don't have to put up with and the reason you don't have to put up with them is because of trade unions.
So why did you decide to write about trade unions?
JP: It is terribly easy, especially for younger people to go in the same way they talk about politicians: "Oh they're all the same." "Oh unions, that Bob Crow he goes on foreign holidays he earns a six figure salary." You have to stop and think: what have the unions done? You can't tar everyone with the same brush. At the same time, it's a call to the unions. Look, come on guys. Stop living in the past. You're not a tribute band. Get real.
Do you think that unions need to modernise with regards to women? There are hardly any women at the forefronts of unions.
DS: Where are the women in it?
JP: Why has there been no woman as the general secretary of the TUC? It is quite shocking considering the campaign for women's rights – something is stopping us. Unions are still very male.
DS: And white. We highlight Brenda Dean and Bill Morris as a woman and a black guy who lead a union. They are complete exceptions. It's not like they opened a door and a lot of people followed in.
Do you think that unions can be disproportionately influential in politics?
JP: Only in the Labour Party. To be totally honest, who cares? Labour lost the election.
DS: Where unions are enormously important nowadays is in the funding of the Labour Party. It is still going on. Thatcher tried to do something. The coalition might try and do something about it. Of course, what it leads to is that the Labour Party are going to have so many millions there, then the Tories have to go to businessmen. It almost comes down to money now. There is no great suggestion that unions have a great influence on Labour policy.
Where would you like to see unions in ten years?
JP: I'd like to see them taking a backseat to the strikes. I'd like to see them involved in education, working practices, unpaid interns, looking at apprenticeships.
DS: A different relationship with employers and their members. There is a new trade unionism but there is still an element of the old trade unionism in it. They almost need to become like friendly societies.
So should there be fewer strikes?
JP: The success of a union has been judged very much on the battle between the government and employers and the union. We shouldn't judge a union by the amount of strikes it has. It should be about the negotiating so that you don't have to have strikes. Is striking against cuts when we're in financial shit an answer? I think most people will think it isn't. It will be interesting to see because unions are going to get bad press this autumn.
Why Join a Trade Union? is available from September 8th.