Trade Union Access to Workplaces — [Siobhain McDonagh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 4th June 2019.

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Photo of Paul Sweeney Paul Sweeney Shadow Minister (Scotland) 5:09 pm, 4th June 2019

Thank you, Ms McDonagh, for allowing me to speak in this very important and timely debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Faisal Rashid on securing it and on speaking so passionately in his introductory remarks. He raised issues that resonate very strongly with me and, indeed, with the wider trade union movement across this country.

It is good to start on a positive note: trade union membership in the United Kingdom has gone up in the past year by 103,000. Now 6.35 million people are members of a trade union in the United Kingdom. However, the long-term trends still give cause for concern. Trade union membership is half of its peak in the late 1970s, when there were 12 million members of trade unions. Over that time, we have seen a 5% fall in the labour share of our economy—the share of our gross national wealth taken home by workers in wages has fallen. There is a strong correlation between the trade union organisation and collective bargaining power in our economy and the amount of wealth that workers are able to secure from the fruits of their labour.

We need to return that fundamental analysis to the heart of how we understand our economy and the relationship between working people and the owners of capital. It has been forgotten from the mainstream narrative in this country, which is about shirkers, people not working hard enough and how people need to be more flexible and sacrifice more, rather than about unity, organisation and agitation against exploitation and in favour of workers’ right to receive the fruits of their labour. The correlation is stark; it is a fact of economic history. The long-term trend in the past 40 years is a diminishing share of wealth for workers.

It would not be half as bad if that share, which workers once took home in their pay packets, was invested by companies and private capital to improve the efficiency of our economy. However, it has not been invested at all. Investment as a share of GDP has flatlined throughout that period. I wonder where that share of capital has gone? The workers are producing wealth and productivity continues to go up, but the share taken home in wages is declining. What happens to that share? It is extracted in profits by companies, which are often not based in the United Kingdom. The wealth is taken overseas, often to opaque tax havens around the world, or invested elsewhere. It is never seen by the people who produce the wealth.

That is the stark reality that we face. That is why, I would argue, having a Labour Government is so critical to restoring the collective bargaining powers in our economy, which are so essential to recapturing the share of the wealth that working people rightly deserve and produce in this country. Workers put in great innovation, productivity and effort every day in many workplaces across the United Kingdom. However, we have seen the hollowing out of their collective capacity to fight for their share of the wealth they produce.

We have seen an increase in trade union membership. Of the total UK workforce, about 23% of workers are in trade unions. However, there are regional disparities in the way trade union organisation works across the United Kingdom. Trade union membership in London and the south-east is 16% to 17% of workers, yet in Scotland, the north-west, north-east and Wales it is between 28% and 30%. There is significant regional variation. There are a number of reasons for that.

First, in areas with traditional manufacturing and labour-intensive employment, where there are large industrial employers, there seems to be more cultural recognition of trade union membership—it is an accepted fact of life. Secondly, in some regions the public sector forms a much more important share of the economy. In public sector workplaces, 52% of the workforce are trade union members, whereas in the private sector, membership is at a mere 13%. That is a huge contrast, which has evolved and become more stark in the past 40 years.

There is a significant age disparity in trade union membership, which reflects the increased casualisation of work. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South mentioned McDonald’s employees being exploited. Many in the retail and food sectors see that happen on a daily basis. Just 4% of 16 to 24-year-olds are members of trade unions, and 77% of trade union members are over 35. The age disparity is significant and we need to tackle it.

We need to introduce information about trade unions into our education system. When I first entered work, I was exploited by employers. I undertook unpaid trial shifts. I worked minimum-wage jobs. I was denied tips. I started in a pizzeria and then worked in a supermarket. When I started working in fruit and veg at Morrisons supermarket, we had a presentation from the USDAW official. At that time, I did not really understand what a trade union was or why it would be significant to me. Why should I give up the precious little money I was paid to a trade union when I could take it home and spend it on going out and having a good time with my pals? Believe it or not, I did have a good time. Education is required on why trade union representation is important, particularly for young people for whom exploitation has never been more critical.