John Harris

Journalist & Author

Adapt or die: a new breed of trade union can save the fossils of old | John Harris

Fast, loud and agile unions working at the frontiers of precarious employment are setting the pace for the future

There is a group of organisations in this country whose most senior roles are almost exclusively the preserve of middle-aged white men. These people do not seem terribly interested in the future, even though it poses grave threats to them and what remains of their power. Indeed, as the economy is endlessly disrupted and transformed, it appears their instinctive response is to bury their heads in the sand.

Though it does not bring me any great joy to say so, these are among the basic facts of 21st-century British trade unionism. Serially weakened by deindustrialisation and kicked around for the best part of 40 years, it is perhaps a miracle that the unions still have 6.2 million members. The work of representation, education and occasional mobilisation that their members continue to do is vital. For all that even leftwing people now seem to be questioning unions’ role within the Labour party, it is entirely right that some of the biggest unions have an organised means of political representation as a counterbalance to the infinite clout of capital. But that is not the whole story, and it is time some glaring failures were talked about in the open.

The big unions can appear to be just waiting for a Labour government to come along and somehow make things alright

Related: Watch out, the Brexiteers might be coming for your paid holidays | Frances O’Grady

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