On 23rd October 2013 an event was held in one of the surrounding universities debating the role of Trade Unions in Contemporary Society. Organised by one of York Trades Council’s young executives, the event aimed to reach out, explain and inspire young people to the benefits of trade unions within work and modern politics.
With people arguing that trade unionism in Britain is declining, representing only 26% of the workforce in 2013 with 36 per cent of those members aged over 50 (this according to research by the department of business, innovation and skills) it leaves the movement balancing on a precarious future.
It is encouraging to hear that the turnout for this event was positive and strong. One student, Steven Howe, inspired by the event has written a report bellow.
The Future of Trade Unions
The venue was a pretty non-descript lecture room in the Business School at the University of Huddersfield. The event however was anything but non-descript. It was billed as ‘The Future of Trade Unions: a debate on the role of Unions in contemporary society’, but was substantially more than the slightly dry title would suggest. The event was split into two separate, hour long sections with the debate in the 2nd hour. The 1st hour was a very informal ‘Trade Union Social’, in which information, ideas and arguments could be shared by all participants.
To stimulate this session the organiser, Reece Goscinski, had arranged for several stalls to be set up, distributing information, advice, leaflets and even free give-aways. The unions taking part in the event were Unison, Unite, GMB (General, Municipal & Boilermakers), USDAW (Union of Shop, Distribution and Allied Workers), the TUC and the National Union of Students (NUS).
The event was hosted by the University of Huddersfield Politics Society who regularly organise similar events with the particular aim of encouraging students to engage with politics. Thanks to a sustained advertising campaign encompassing trade unions, the Yorkshire & Humber TUC and local cross party political organisations there was a very encouraging turnout, indeed, possibly the best I’ve seen for this type of event.
In the 2nd hour the panel was assembled and the debate began. Ably chaired by the aforementioned Reece Goscinski, the panellists represented a cross-section of opinion, but their unifying feature was the panel’s youth. Representing the young workers section of the TUC was Ryan Ward accompanied by Nosheen Dee (President of Huddersfield Students Union, a late stand-in for the advertised), Gemma Pickering (Conservative Future, who held together well despite being aware of the hostilityin the room) and Hugh Goulbourne (representing Young Labour).
There were 6 questions put to the panel by the Chair:
- Should Trade Unions have a role in British politics when they represent less than 50% of the total workplace?
- Do Trade Unions have a positive or negative impact on social equality?
- Does the advent of social partnerships undermine the traditional collective spirit of the trade unions?
- While NUS recognises its’ social role in the lives of students, is its’ political role somewhat diminished?
- What one action or policy would make trade unions more relevant to young workers?
- What should be the future role for trade unions in society?
Unfortunately limited space doesn’t allow me to go into all the issues brought up by this debate. There were many interesting ideas and questions brought up by panellists and audience alike. However I would argue that the main point of the event was to engage young peoples’ interest in trade unions. In this objective I believe the event was very successful.
The feedback from the floor is best represented by one student who said, “it deepened my understanding of the trade union movement in Britain”. Another student stated that unions “have got to get more young people involved within their structures,” a positive response from an initially uncertain audience.
From a different perspective, a senior politics lecturer stated that “The future of trade unions is certainly enhanced by the activism of young people, such as the organisers of the debate”. Speaking to students before and especially after this event their feedback indicated that they felt there should be a strong role for trade unions in society and in the workplace. There was also a feeling that young peoples’ voices needed to be heard much more within trade unions, and they would like to see the trade union movement reach out to them more with similar events.
The general consensus appeared to be that the event was a great success and was a format that could be profitably repeated within the trade union movement as well as educational establishments. If there is be a strong and confident future for the trade union movement it is essential that similar events and policies take place.