How trade unions are gearing up for the fourth industrial revolution – 150 years after the first TUC meeting in Manchester
Born in Manchester during a period of rapid industrial expansion, the TUC was formed to give a voice to skilled workers. We look back on it’s past, present and future.
We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live and work.
It will involve robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), nanotechnology, quantum computing, biotech, the Internet of Things and autonomous vehicles, and will disrupt every industry.
From banks to supermarkets, call-centres to offices, classrooms to hospitals, new technologies are reshaping the world of work.
For that reason the TUC – a collective of 49 trade unions with 5.5 million members – is engaged in the debate over how it can help shape these technological changes to benefit working people, their families and communities.
Lynn Collins, regional organiser for the TUC in the North West, says it is the sort of work the TUC has embarked on throughout its 150-year history.
“We’ve survived three industrial revolutions and I’ll put money on us surviving a fourth,” she said. “What we are very clear on when we talk about the future of industry is that unions will have to change what they do and the way they do it.”
Looking back at the TUC
To best understand the challenge the TUC faces, we need to look back over its history and achievements.
The origins of trade unions can be traced back to the 18th century, where the rapid expansion of industrial society then taking place drew women, children, rural workers and immigrants into the workforce in large numbers and in new roles.
Groups tried to organise but collective bargaining was outlawed.
Then, in 1818 in Manchester, the Philanthropic Society was founded and is now believed to be the first trade union. Others began to emerge, including a hotbed of groups in the North West because of its booming cotton industry, but national organisation proved difficult.
Two attempts to hold a congress of trade unions in London failed, but then on February 21, 1868, at Manchester Mechanics’ Institute, the Manchester and Salford Trades Council convened for the first time and the TUC was born.
“I like to say it happened in Manchester because it is a special place,” Collins says. “Manchester gets the word solidarity. It’s a principle that has been here, whether it was the Chartist movement, the Suffragettes, Peterloo, LGBT challenging Clause 28, the Arndale centre bombing.
“People understand the power of collectivising to speak out against injustice. They get it here. You saw it perfectly with the One Love concert after the bomb only last year. That understanding of solidarity has underpinned the trade union movement.”
Finding its voice
The TUC grew and established itself as the voice of trade unions in the UK.
In its first decades, it concentrated on influencing government policy, but from the 1920s onwards it took a more active role in industrial matters, playing a key part in co-ordinating the 1926 general strike.
Over time, it became part of the infrastructure of the trade union movement, as well as a campaigning and influencing body.
Some of its key achievements have been campaigns which resulted in the Equal Pay Act, the National Minimum Wage, limits placed on working hours and minimum holiday entitlement, the smoking ban in public areas in response to union arguments that workers were risking their health, and winning rights for agency workers to receive the same treatment as permanent staff.
A mission that remains the same
Today, TUC affiliates include Equity, GMB, Unite, the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA), Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, NASUWT, the University and College Union and UNISON.
Collins says while much has changed, the TUC’s mission remains the same: standing up for working women and men, and making sure their voices are heard.
“Unions were important because there was an imbalance at work, where the boss or gaffer has the power and the workforce, if they acted individually, couldn’t compete,” Collins explained. “By acting together it redresses that balance. In one voice you could put across issues including pay, conditions, safety.
“One of my favourite quotes is by Mary Macarthur, the suffragist and trades unionist, who said ‘unions are like a bundle of sticks, they tie their members together and create a strength that individual sticks don’t have on their own’. That’s why they are still important today.”
Modern campaigns have focused on the rise of precarious work contracts through zero hours and the gig economy, which amount to 45 per cent of all jobs created in the North West in the last five years, according to the TUC.
Collins said: “Many of these situations don’t require such a precarious working relationships. One example is football clubs, who employ a lot of match day staff. They know how many matches they will have per season and they know how long they last, so those staff should have a contract that is permanent for those matches and how long they last. We’ve always had a flexible need for labour but we didn’t have to put all the precariousness on the employee and none of it on the employer, which is putting all the risk on the worker.”
Despite these developing concerns for workers, union membership is in crisis. In 1979 around 13 million working people were members of a union. That number today is around 6.2m.
This is down to a mixture of structural changes in advanced economies, globalisation and the rise of a more flexible service sector. Meanwhile, more recent reforms to minimum wages and workplace discrimination have reduced the need to be in one.
Collins argues that unions and TUC are crucial to the future of work.
“We have made some progress,” she said. “We haven’t got children getting caught up in looms any more, but we have teachers caught up in workload and administrative systems taking them away from their jobs.
“Unions have been at the heart of tackling those issues and the progress has been made by putting pressure on management, working with them, sometimes taking them to task, sometime striking and taking action, sometimes getting legislative change. The problems of 150 years ago may have gone, but a new era of issues has arisen that we have to tackle. It shows the role for unions is still really valid.”
The way workers organise is also changing rapidly, Collins says.
“It’s no longer about walking into a factory of 6,000 people and calling them to a meeting and that’s your union strength,” she said. “This is about domestic care workers who drive around in their cars on their own and don’t have a workplace to go to. Unions need to adapt to that and we’ve got some really good examples of unions rising to that challenge, particularly Unison’s ‘care workers for change’ campaign, which is reaching out beyond its membership to identify issues and shape their work around them.”
Case study: How the TUC helped the PTS
When the decision was taken to outsource the Greater Manchester Patient Transport Service (PTS) in 2012, there was uproar from the TUC and its affiliate UNISON.
The contract, which involves helping those who need extra support to get to hospital appointments, was taken away from the North West Ambulance Service (NWAS) and awarded to Arriva, the bus company.
But the privately run service received hundreds of complaints from patients and Arriva was ordered to pay back £1.5m after misreporting performance standards.
UNISON and the TUC campaigned for the service to be brought back into the NHS and celebrated its return in 2016.
This was not the end of the story though, as more than 100 staff recruited by Arriva were transferred on inferior pay and conditions to their NWAS-recruited colleagues.
UNISON members were balloted in February and an extraordinary 100 per cent voted to strike.
NWAS has now agreed to rectify the problem in the coming months and pay all staff the NHS rate for the job.
A spokesman said: “The fight against privatisation and attacks on pay and conditions is a never-ending struggle, but with persistence, the unions and the workers can and do win important victories.”
A new activism
While some unions wither, new ones blossom, with previously unorganised workers now finding a new collectivism.
Ryanair pilots achieved union recognition earlier this year after a six year effort. Meanwhile, foster carers are looking to organise and there has been examples of members of the Musicians Union organising into collectives to set minimum rates.
The digital world has also enabled unorganised workers to unite.allows workers to start, run and win campaigns using an
online petition. This sense of empowerment, Collins says, is the start of a trade union.
The other big challenge for the TUC is engaging younger workers.
“We have a generation where both parents weren’t in trade unions, so they don’t have experience of it, but do have issues at work,” Collins said.
“We are no longer in the era where you pop into an office, pick up a membership form and post it off to get your union card, they want it straight away.”
With that in mind the TUC is close to launching a new campaign to engage with and enlist the next generation.
For Collins, personally, that conversation starts at home.
“I talk to my teenage daughter about maternity provisions, sex discrimination, getting paid the same as a man for the same job.
“Our younger generations don’t realise we had to fight for that. I tell her about the women from Dagenham who stood up to be counted and banged on the door of Barbara Castle and got legislative change.
“Trade unions have done that over a range of issues to make the working world better for everybody, not just their own members.”
Then there’s the future and the inevitable technological change that is approaching, which while it brings with it real potential benefits, causes a degree of fear among the working population over the security of their jobs.
Collins argued that the TUC and businesses need to work together.
“Democracy is something we fight for in the world, but we kind of park it at the workplace door and just accept that the boss is in charge,” she said. “The TUC and unions are about democracy at work and having a voice. Very often where you have a very active union, they are actively part of building the business.
“The future can be good if we have that proper relationship at work, treating people with dignity and respect, engaging people in the future of businesses.
“A lot of the developments in the fourth industrial revolution will require existing workers to retrain, union learning reps do that all the time.
“They work with employers about how we can give people the skills they need to do the job now and in the future.”
The TUC’s core ambitions to create and protect jobs and ensure employees are paid a fair wage are now being taken up by the region’s political leaders.
Case study: the Good Employer Charter
Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, is bidding to launch a new Greater Manchester Good Employer Charter to support employers to reach best practice, helping them to grow and provide good jobs.
It is his remedy to the region’s productivity problem which is lower than the rest of the UK.
“Our aim is to make Greater Manchester the best place to live, work and invest,” he said. “But that vision will not become a reality when people in our city region are working week to week not knowing how many hours they’ll get or in some cases not even knowing whether they’ll have a job next
“The answer, for both employees and employers is clear. Good jobs with fair pay, security and opportunities get the best out of people. A motivated workforce boosts productivity and this helps companies to grow.
“That’s why we need every job in Greater Manchester to be a good job. By working together I know we can meet this challenge.”
A consultation has just finished, with plans to create the draft charter later in the year.
Lynn Collins and the TUC are fully behind it.
“There is a cultural change in our political leadership that says ‘we want jobs here, but we want good jobs and good employers’. You’re very welcome in Greater Manchester, but we’ve got standards.
“We will continue to work on that Good Charter and praise those employers who meet those standards, who are able to say
they give people a voice at work,
that they treat people with dignity and respect, that they have health and safety practices at work, all those essentials.
“We will shout their names from the rooftops. But we will also name and shame those who don’t.”
Who is Lynn Collins?
As the TUC’s senior representative in the North West, Collins represents around 800,000 workers in 49 different trade unions affiliated to the TUC.
Her political activity began in the 1980s when she was active in the peace movement and at 16 she was elected to the National Committee of Youth CND.
She has been active in the trade union movement all her working life.
After university she worked as a project manager at Plessey Telecommunications in Liverpool, where, aged just 21, she was elected as a convenor for managers and senior technical staff for the union TASS (now part of UNITE).
In 1990 Lynn was appointed by the Society of Radiographers to lead their work negotiating for members employed by NHS Trust hospitals where she was elected to the TUC Women’s Committee.
She took a post with UNISON in the North West, representing members in health and local government, and subsequently held senior positions in the National Union of Teachers and the University and Colleges Union, before being appointed as TUC regional secretary in 2012 – the first woman to hold that position.
Collins is also a trustee at the Working Class Movement Library in Salford.