The importance of Unions
This article was originally published in Concrete.
The statistics we repeatedly hear about graduate employment are bleak – Concrete has reported on the disturbingly high levels of joblessness on many occasions. Nearly half of all graduates are still unemployed six months after finishing their degrees according toTotaljobs, and EU Agency Eurofound recently pegged the numbers of people under 30 still living with their parents in the UK at just under a third. This is testimony to the difficulty with which young people are finding jobs and homes. Add to this the unsympathetic attitude of the current government, who would like to scrap benefits for those under 25, and the message becomes clearer: austerity disadvantages students.
Trades union have been in decline since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century, and before Margaret Thatcher’s government caused numbers to decline dramatically from the 1980s. The UK Government’s Department for Business and Skills reports that 6.5 million employees nationwide were trade union members in 2013, down from their peak at just over 13 million in 1979. Many people frame this decline in the context of rising affluence and better living and working conditions. However, union membership is important as ever, particularly in these increasingly worrying times. Conditions are not improving for many people: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation notes that income inequality reached its highest levels since 1961 during 2009-10, and shows a drop in median incomes of 7.8% from 2007-08 to 2010-11. The living standards of poorer households have fallen as a result of welfare cuts and falling earnings, and poverty among working-age adults has steadily risen over the last few years. As graduate unemployment rises, and employers use zero hour contracts to mask the true levels of unemployment among the workforce, union membership can be a key to success.
There are several reasons why being in a trade union can be a boon to students. Solidarity comes high up on the list: being part of a union improves one’s chances of achieving change (be it longer breaks, more flexible hours, childcare options, or a pay rise) via collective action. Collective action is often framed negatively, for instance regarding the UCU’s recent action over pensions that threatened to leave year students unable to graduate. Collective action was essential in this dispute, and the support of the students’ union at UEA added weight and credibility to the UCU’s campaign campus. Despite the bad press, collective action and solidarity achieved some of the demands of lecturers, though not all, demonstrating the importance of organising and working with colleagues.
Students are often employed in low-paid, low-skilled jobs such as bar work or retail (despite often being highly qualified). Young people dominate the workforce in industries like these because they are so energy intensive and are easy to enter, but they are traditionally under-represented. This means however, that union representation can be incredibly successful or instance, the Norwich Bartenders’ and Hospitality Union has recently been established, and has so far succeeded in increasing the prospects of many of its student (and non-student) members in an industry that is characterised by low pay, terrible hours and difficult conditions. Workplace organisation and solidarity puts pressure on employers, encourages good practice, and discourages actions that take advantage of young, inexperienced employees. It can educate members their rights and inspire political or labour activism, potentially bringing people with divergent (or perhaps absent) political beliefs and ideologies together under a common cause.
Although political and ideological motivations are important, particularly for those on the left, this can be a turn-off for many people, especially for those in part-time employment with a high turnover, which inspires an attitude of “it doesn’t apply to me”. Trade union membership is arguably even more important for transient jobs because employers have more opportunities to take advantage. Zero hour contracts, for example, allow employers to call the shots – if they don’t like you, you won’t get fired, but you won’t get any shifts either. Students have historically been a politically empowered group society, but the promotion of career and employability skills in British universities has forced a shift in the focus from radical politics to employment and job prospects. Union representation appeals to both of these foci – it can augment one’s work life as well as encourage political awareness and mobilisation – and is therefore a win/win strategy.
Union membership is important to bring together class people, students and the unemployed in a society that has steadily become fragmented, with undue focus on consumerist ideals. The way in which the wage system and capitalism works serves to reinforce inequality between employees and employers and students play an important role in any struggle to create a more equal society, poised as they are between being part of the oppressed working class and as being potential employers, entrepreneurs, and part of the educated middle class. The abolition of the wage system is the focus of more radical trade union such as the IWW but the role of unions is also important to challenge the status quo that separates workers and bosses more dialectically. To build a stronger and more egalitarian framework requires both discursive and practical radicalism, ranging from a centre-left critique of austerity to militant direct action such as sabotage(commonly misconstrued as damage to property, but taken to mean deliberate withdrawal of efficiency).
In the current climate of austerity and the erosion of civil liberties, union membership can present a challenge. As all students are painfully aware, the Coalition government increased the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year, making the average cost of an undergraduate university education upwards of £26,000, pricing many poorer students out of , and into (frequently low-paid) employment. This year, it was also agreed that £900m of student debt is to be sold off to private companies, meaning that students may be forced to retrospectively pay even more for their degrees if private financial institutions decide to increase interest rates in the future. This is part of a wider trend of privatisation, for instance of the NHS, education (shown by the rise of free schools) and public services such as the Royal Mail. Wages are not increasing in line with inflation (for instance, lecturers at have received a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, which was the reasoning for the proposed UCU marking boycott) and a bachelor’s degree is sadly no longer the ticket to success it once was. With the rise in graduate unemployment, more students are using masters degrees to guarantee a leg in the door, though this is a pursuit reserved for those that can afford fees of £5000+ per year. The ONS announced last week that house prices increased by 9.9%, largely driven by swollen costs in London (18.7%). Wages can’t keep up with the inexorable march of spiralling rents and inflated living costs, thereby marginalising those on low incomes, such as students, the unemployed and the working class.
While rents continue to soar, homelessness is on the increase and corporations further marginalise and denigrate those forced to sleep rough, for instance by installing anti-homeless spikes. This is symptomatic of the contempt with which the ruling classes, corporations and governments treat the most vulnerable in society. Right-wing media outlets target vulnerable groups, who fall foul of fear mongering and scapegoating, illustrated by the attitudes of people who believe benefit recipients to be ‘scroungers’ and migrants to be after their jobs. Strong unions create solidarity, improve conditions, and challenge the austerity rhetoric of governments. This erodes the pre-conditions for conservatism and the counters the arguments of extremist groups like Golden Dawn, UKIP, and the EDL, which flourish in difficult economic climates. Trades union represent a challenge because they bring together such broad coalitions of members, and present strength in numbers.
The situation is looking bleak, and apathy and a lack of action are not going to change anything. Students need to reignite a love of radicalism, and embrace trade unionism as a proactive form of activism that can realise achievable and legitimate goals. Collective action can be an empowering and effective tool to challenge the austerity that preserves the privilege of elites while undermining the ability of the 99% to lead rewarding and enjoyable lives. Union organisation works on a multiplicity of scales – from challenging unjust practices in the workplace to contributing to the creation of a better society at national and international level. The struggle against injustice must be fought on all levels if it is to succeed. Collectivism is strength, and only together can we change the world.