We know that trade unions have played an integral role in the labour movement. It was through trade union organising that better pay, better working conditions and equal pay for women were slowly introduced into the factories in the UK. Historically trade unions were linked with the cotton, coal, iron, steel and engineering industries. Historical strikes such as the May Day Strike (1889) and the dockers’ strike (1889) were a result of trade union organising.

The labour movement has historically been one of the most effective movements in shaping the UK economic and welfare system. However, as the type of work, industries, working styles and number of jobs shifts, how has the labour movement adapted to this new economy? And, importantly, is it doing well?

This month we caught up Unions 21 – an organisation that supports unions across the UK to increase their influence, impact and effectiveness within the world of work. We met with their Director , Becky Wright, and Trustee, Simon Sapper to discuss the challenges the labour movement faces in today’s world, the role of trade unions within the labour movement, and the future of work.


SCA: Do you want to introduce yourselves? Who are Unions 21?

Becky: Unions 21 is a collection of unions – both large and small – and organisations who support unions such as law firms.  As an organisation we exist to support unions to be an effective voice in the world of work. We focus on helping unions build their internal capacity so that they are still relevant. We filter our work into three main themes: new economy and new workers, good work, and innovation and change.

SCA: We know that the trade union movement has historically made some incredible changes to the world of work. But do you think people still still feel affiliated to trade unions in the same way they used to?

Simon: While some people may say that they’re not interested in the labour movement, I suspect that if you actually speak to them about their interests and demands in a world of work, they would come up with things like respect, dignity, fairness in the workplace, autonomy and transparency. This is exactly what the labour movement is fighting for and it’s exactly what young people are concerned about. But unionisation among 16 – 25 year olds is at around 5%. The challenge for the trade union movement is that, if people like trade union values, then why don’t they affiliate with the Trade Union Movement?

SCA: Does a labour movement – a movement that cares about the dignity, rights and fairness in work – need to have trade unions as a part of it?

Simon: It’s hard to imagine how a labour movement would work without the organisation,collective memory and other resources that a formal set of institutions have. One definite question is around whether the current organising models we have are fit for purpose. And they’re not. Often trade unions tread too much within their existing boundaries rather than realising there’s a whole world out there. But, bringing people together to do something does require some degree of organisation and structure – and union organising campaigns are hugely effective.

Becky: While there is always work and while people sell their labour, there will always be a need for a labour movement. The challenge is, how does this manifest itself? We have traditionally done it one way, and that’s worked for a brief period of time. But it might not work going forward. However, the need for an independent voice at work will always exist, and whether you call it a chocolate cheesecake or a trade union, the fundamentals will always be the same.

SCA: Going forward, what do you think the labour movement will look like in this new economy characterised by freelance work, zero hours contracts, and small businesses?

Simon: The issue we need to pull our attention to is that of collective voice. What does this look like in an atomised economy from an employment point of view?

Becky: The challenge that we have is that as a movement we have focused largely on collective bargaining. However,  the majority of people work in small or medium enterprises. That in itself brings a challenge: how does a union form in that environment and what does it look like? I think this is a conversation we haven’t really had as a movement. We haven’t looked at what we are.

SCA: What do you think the biggest test for the movement will be?

Becky: How we evolve while sticking true to our values. We need to recognise that they way people engage is changing. And we’re not where people are at anymore. But we don’t want to throw out everything from past years. We know that people are not hostile to the values and ideas of trade union movements when they’re told about it. So how do we go about telling people about it, and who’s in charge of that narrative?

It seems like Trade Unions have tapped into the very heart of a movement’s identity. They have a strong core of shared experience, purpose and values. However, communicating this across new networks and to a wider range of people is proving difficult. It requires a shift in tactics on the side of Trade Unions, and an increased awareness of the power of the labour movement by everyday workers. The labour movement is at an interesting crossroads. At a time of huge shifts in the world of work, can the old trade unions adapt to new ways of working?

Thank you to Unions 21 for sharing their thoughts, hopes, and fears with us. We’re excited about the future of this movement!