Unions are the biggest source of income for many people, but their influence is being undermined by a lack of regulation.
A report published last week by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that the number of unions representing employees in Britain’s public sector is declining and their influence on politics is waning.
The IMF’s annual report on global labour markets found that there are now fewer than 2.5 million registered trade unions in Britain.
Despite this, it has found that many of them are not as engaged in politics as their counterparts in other rich nations, with the vast majority of their members working for private sector organisations, such as banks and financial institutions.
“The political role of the unions is limited,” said the report’s author, James A. Martin, an economist at London’s Imperial College, “as they are not recognised by the government as a ‘civil service’.”
The report, entitled “Unions and the politics of inequality: a review”, was released after the Labour government passed a new labour law last week that makes it easier for unions to raise money.
In a report on trade unions published last year, Martin wrote that: “The rise of trade unions has been one of the most significant developments in the history of labour movements.
For decades, unions have played a key role in the organising of the working class, in mobilising workers against injustice, and in resisting the exploitation of working people.”
Trade unions have also played a role in resisting attempts to de-industrialise the UK, and to tackle climate change.
In its report, Martin said unions had played a “major role in ensuring that Britain remained a centre of global production”.
He added that “union membership and the ability to organise in the public sector have remained high, and that there is evidence that unions are increasingly involved in political campaigns”.
However, the union lobby, and the political parties they support, have not been as influential in British politics.
Labour’s election manifesto, published last month, stated that unions had “no political influence” and that unions “don’t influence public policy”.
While unions have long played a significant role in politics, the report noted that the Labour party is “in danger of becoming a shadow of its former self”.
It said the party “is failing to act to protect public services and workers from the threat of privatisation, while ignoring the mounting pressures on the NHS”.
“It is in danger of turning into a party of the big business lobby and corporate greed, with a Labour party which is too scared of its members’ unionism to stand up for their interests,” Martin wrote.
He concluded: “We know that in a world where the labour movement is under threat, we have to be prepared to take bolder action.”
Unions are being undermined, the IMF warned, by a “lack of regulation” in Britain and a lack in democratic governance.
Its report also warned that a Labour government could “cut public sector wages by £10bn” and make it more difficult for workers to get the “full value of their work”.
Martin, a former adviser to Tony Blair, said the “resurgence of the labour unions” was an “opportunity for Labour to show its commitment to social justice”.
“Unions play a vital role in organising and mobilising working people against injustice and in defending public services, and are one of their main means of engaging in politics,” he said.
However he added: “Trade unions should not be seen as a threat to the working-class, but a crucial part of the economic recovery that is delivering decent pay and decent working conditions for many British workers.”