The TUC is seeking to involve more young workers in the unions through their ‘WorkSmart’ app. But union leaders need to mobilise workers on the basis of a fighting strategy and bold programme.
2017 saw the lowest rate of trade union membership ever recorded – a decrease of 9.2 percentage points compared to a 32.4% rate in 1995. TUC membership has halved over the last 40 years, falling from a high of 13.2 million in 1979 to 6.2 million in 2017.
Right-wingers use figures like these to dismiss the TUC and the unions as an irrelevant anachronism of the past. Those in favour of trade unions, by contrast, emphasise their fighting potential whilst pressing for evolution and change.
Frances O’Grady, the TUC’s general secretary, proudly argues for the latter. To tackle the problem of declining membership, however, O’Grady believes that trade unions must simply adapt to match the modern models used by 21st century employers.
But the changes brought in by big business these days are taking us backwards, with a move towards more casualisation, low-pay, self-employment, and temporary, zero-hours contracts. In short, more pressure on workers – and more profits for the bosses.
This is not a model that the unions should be seeking to adapt to. Instead, the TUC should be organising workers and fighting against these changes.
For O’Grady, change involves ‘digital trade unionism’, with workers organised through apps. “If we’ve got a digital economy, we’ve got to have digital trade unionism,” the TUC general secretary has said.
We agree that the unions needs to keep up with modern developments in the economy and industry. But successful trade unionism involves far more than developing a popular app.
Modern technology can be used to help organise workers, as has been seen in the strikes of gig economy workers at Deliveroo, organised largely through WhatsApp.
But new digital tools should only be an auxiliary for the unions, not a replacement for (as has been suggested by O’Grady) the structures of workplace representation and trade union branches, shop stewards, and elected representatives.
We must seek to strengthen organisation and democracy in the workplace, not atomise workers by reducing their interaction with one another to communication through an app.
The main focus for the TUC and the unions needs to be on recruitment and the provision of leadership, support, solidarity and education across the labour movement. Union leaders should be giving workers the confidence to organise and take action. An app is no panacea or silver bullet for these vital tasks.
Above all, in order to mobilise young workers in the fightback against austerity, cuts, and job insecurity, we need fighting leadership and struggle on the basis of a clear, bold, socialist programme that offers a genuine alternative to the miseries and exploitation of capitalism.