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Fintan O’Toole: Want to change the world? Join a union

Young workers are realising that being a ‘team member’ is no substitute for the power of the collective

What are the differences between older people and younger people in Ireland? Off the top of our heads, most of us would suggest Mass-going, watching actual television and wearing overcoats when it’s cold.

But here’s another one that’s far more important: if you’re old, you’ve probably been a member of a trade union. If you’re young, you haven’t.

And if the young really want to change the world, this is one area in which they really have to catch up with their elders. Joining a union might just be the most radical thing they could do.

‘The union’ conjures smoke-filled rooms, middle-aged men spouting acronyms and grainy footage of flying pickets. It does not evoke what it really is

In Ireland, 64 per cent of people aged between 64 and 75 either are or have been members of a union. These figures drop all the way down each rung of the age ladder: just 26 per cent of 25-to-34-year-olds have ever held a union card. A mere 16 per cent of this age cohort of workers are currently in a union.

This is a huge change in the way we exist in the world, the way we relate to our fellow workers, to our employers, to the economy and society. The idea of collective power has been undermined. It is, increasingly, every worker for him or herself.

This same pattern holds in most developed economies, and it has been fabulous news for the very rich. Of all the ways that economic elites make fools of ordinary people, the most successful is to convince them that trade unions are passe.

If you want to make sure that the lion’s share of all the new wealth being created goes to those who are already wealthy, your best bet has been to make unions seem, as they do to so many young people, like mere vestiges of a fading past.

“The union” conjures smoke-filled rooms, middle-aged men spouting acronyms and grainy footage of flying pickets. It does not evoke what it really is: the best defence that most people have against exploitation.

This has been the great deception of economic life over the last 40 years. But perhaps we are now at a moment when this illusion is itself passing away.

Anyone who wants to continue to live in a democracy should hope that this is so. For the single most effective way to tackle the grotesque inequalities that are making liberal democracy unsustainable would be to revive trade unions.

It’s not accidental that the neoliberal revolution that took off with the elections of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 announced itself with the symbolic breaking of powerful unions. Thatcher took on and defeated the miners; Reagan fired 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and banned them from federal employment for life.

Globalisation and technological change massively amplified the effects of this political shift. The huge factories where everyone was automatically enrolled in the union closed down.

The rising high-tech industries resisted unionisation. In much of the new economy, if you want more money and better conditions, you go not to the shop steward to demand collective action, but to LinkedIn to find a new job.

Unions often did very little to help themselves. Officials — usually male and middle-aged — sometimes played up to their own caricatures. It became all too easy to make unions seem, not just economically and socially outmoded, but something much worse: unfashionable.

It is long since time that the Government acted to end the current regime whereby an employer can simply refuse to recognise a union

A vicious circle was set in motion. As union membership became more confined to the public sector, younger people in the private economy came to associate it with teachers, nurses and civil servants — and emphatically not with their own working lives.

But the real effects of the decline of unions have been catastrophic. For without them, capital has triumphed over labour. The wealth generated by the technological transformations of recent decades has been cornered by the very rich.

Ireland is a very good example of this wider shift. Between 2001 and 2021, the workforce here grew by 350,000. But union membership actually declined, from 540,000 to 516,000. Back in the 1980s, 60 per cent of Irish workers were in unions. Now, it’s about 25 per cent.

The decline is not just a function of the growth of service industries. Union membership has receded, too, in areas where it used to be strong, like construction, manufacturing and hospitality.

This matters because, without collective bargaining, workers get an ever smaller slice of the pie. In Ireland, the share of the economy that goes to workers has declined steadily as union membership has fallen. Even in 2010, labour was getting half of what the economy was producing. By 2019, that had fallen to less than a third.

It’s not just about money, though. The decline of unions has also had a huge impact on the way we live. The 40-hour week — one of the great achievements of the labour movement — has been lost for most private sector workers. The effects on family life and on physical and mental health are deeply destructive.

Democracy can’t survive if the incomes of working- and middle-class people are static or in relative decline. The wealthy elites are, on the one hand, increasingly disconnected from ordinary life and, on the other, increasingly able to distort electoral politics for their own benefit. Populism fills this gap in ever more toxic ways.

But maybe the ground is finally shifting. Labour shortages are giving workers a sense of their own power. In the US, aggressively anti-union giants like Amazon and Starbucks are facing serial revolts by workers.

In Britain, a huge propaganda effort by the Tory media failed to dent public support for striking rail workers or admiration for their coolly combative leader Mick Lynch.

And there is evidence in Ireland that workers who are not currently in unions want to join one. Last year, the UCD Working in Ireland Survey found that, if given the choice, 44 per cent of non-union workers indicated they would vote to establish a union in their workplace, while 37 per cent said they would not.

Most interestingly, though, the figures are even higher for two groups: women and young people. Over half of unorganised women workers want to be in a union and a whopping two-thirds of those aged between 16 and 24 do.

Obviously, the unions have work to do in getting young and female workers organised. Equally obviously, it is long since time that the Government acted to end the current regime whereby an employer can simply refuse to recognise a union, making the collective bargaining rights enshrined in international law virtually meaningless.

There is, nonetheless, a sense that we are at a moment of change. Even conservative institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Economic Forum recognise that gross inequality is politically, socially and economically unsustainable and that trade unions are crucial to ending it.

Young workers, meanwhile, have learned the hard way that a name badge that identifies you as a “partner” or “team member” is of much less use than a union badge that identifies you as part of an organisation that gives you some real power.