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Over the coming months it is highly likely that low paid workers in public services, such as local government employees, are to engage on a national level in industrial action to secure better pay. Cue the inevitable howls of outrage from the mainstream media and political class, as they denounce such workers and the trade unions representing them as radical extremists intent on damaging not only Britain’s “hard working taxpayers,” but the very survival of the British economy itself. Such outlandish rhetoric, wheeled out every time workers are forced into taking industrial action to improve or protect their terms and conditions, helps obscure the real role of trade unions in society. This leads to people often coming to see them as little more than overly paid bureaucrats or mischief-causing militants and as a result feeling less inclined to support the workers involved.
In a close to home example, trade unionists on campus have in recent years faced responses from sections of the student populace which have been at best irreverent, and at worst openly hostile. In this context, we feel the need to argue why we as students should in fact support trade unions, even when it comes to such apparently contentious matters as industrial action, not only because it is morally right for us to do so, but as we hope to show, because it is actually in our own personal interest.
It must always be remembered that without employees putting in considerable hours at work most of the services and businesses we use on a daily basis would not function. In universities for example, without academic and support staff represented by unions such as UCU and Unison, higher education would just not operate in an effective manner. For this reason, workers, in return for the labour they put in to keep these services ticking are entitled to pay and conditions which meet their everyday needs. Sometimes employers, whether they be government departments or private bosses, do not always give employees what they actually need, whether this be living wages, adequate sick pay, or maternity or paternity pay. In this context workers need organisations which can fight for their interests, and historically trade unions have played such a role. By defending their interests in the workplace, unions can help employees in the face of hostile management. As a consequence of this, it is imperative for students to support employees having the right to unionise and to back unions when they engage in industrial or political campaigns for the benefit of their members, such as the low paid women who primarily work in local government to keep it functioning.
Some students may argue that unions cannot be supported because they engage in disruptive strike action. In reality it can be argued that it is short-sighted for students to oppose trade unions and their use of strikes given that many graduate-only professions are ones protected by unions, and that they themselves may be forced into engaging in strike action in order to defend their interests. In fact, it is highly advisable that students, whether they be working to support their studies at the moment, or are leaving university for careers, consider becoming unionised. Membership of unions has repeatedly been shown to have benefits for employees, with that bastion of militant Marxism The Daily Telegraph recently reporting that employees are on average £4000 per year better off if they belong to a union than if they do not.
In an economy increasingly characterised by low paying and insecure jobs, unionisation can be seen as a clear way of securing a greater potential for higher pay and greater job security, with strikes, as disruptive and inconvenient as they may be at times, being one of the most effective tools employees can wield.
It is sometimes argued that trade unions are now outdated institutions, ones which fail to engage with the views and needs of the wider public as it exists now, and are therefore undeserving of support or respect. Frequently, trade union members are presented in political and media debates as overly militant and unreasonable, a throwback to the sort of class based politics modern Britain has supposedly transcended. On the other hand, we would argue that the failure of trade unions has not been that they have been too disruptive and demanding in disputes, and in such a way failed to recognise the needs of the public, but rather that they have been too cautious when challenging political and economic power and as such have failed to properly mass mobilise employees, particularly those private sector employees viewed as “hard working members of the public,” into organising and taking action. In this way, instead of condemning them from the side-lines as outdated and flawed, we as students should be actively engaging with unions in order to make them more effective and influential in fighting for employees. We can easily start such a process by fully supporting the ongoing efforts of public sector trade unions to win better pay for their grossly underpaid and exploited members, those who have particularly suffered during the recent years of crisis and austerity and who are fully entitled to pay that enables them to adequately live.