By Claire West

The TUC Conference must address the decline in Union Membership as a matter of urgency”, comments leading Industrial Relations expert, Andy Cook, Chief Executive of Employee Relations Experts, Marshall-James.

Cook, speaking on the first day of the TUC conference in Manchester, goes on to say “unions in the UK are facing a very real issue — how to recruit workers from the private sector into union membership. With overall membership now standing at 25% of the UK workforce and an all time low of just 16% in the private sector and steady year on year decline; Trades Unions must find a way to become attractive to younger members of the workforce in the Private Sector, otherwise they face further marginalisation”.

“In my view, the language of some union leaders who talk about the evil of capitalism, the class struggle and a call for a national strike turns most workers off. Most employees don’t identify with these terms, let alone believe in them. The public face of unions is represented by some very extreme views from high profile union leaders and if non-members are seeing those people as representative of the union movement, it is not surprising that unions hold little appeal for a majority of the workforce.”

The election for the General Secretary of UNITE, the UK’s largest union, with around 1.4 million members, is crucial. Many employers are worried about the direction the union will get taken in if the election is won by one of the traditional, left wing candidates, of which ex-Liverpool docker; Len McCluskey is the favourite to win. Mccluskey has publicly declared that his policy will be to say “no cuts to jobs; no pay freezes; no cuts to pensions and no cuts to services”. For the average Private Sector employer that works with UNITE, those words make employers and employees very nervous. Maybe this and the high profile disputes at BA and BAA is the reason for the decline in Unite membership by 5.3% in the last year.

If you contrast that against a union such as USDAW, who represent nearly 400,000 workers in the retail section and who are committed to working with employers far more pragmatically for the benefit of their members and also the success of the business, their membership has increased by 4.3% over the same period. It shows this pragmatic approach has far more appeal to potential members.

Unions have a very important role to play and there are some excellent union people who do talk the language of the average worker. These people need to come to the fore. That is the debate the TUC should be engaged in, not a debate about how to bring down capitalism through a national strike”.