THE Trades Union Congress (TUC) held its annual conference in Liverpool last week. This was the second time it had come together since the cost of living crisis began in the summer of last year, as well as since the Tories began preparing their legislation to further restrict the right to strike.

Since then, the biggest uptick in strike action has taken place and the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill has now become an Act, after being universally condemned by those within and outside of the union movement.

But despite all the righteous anger and indignation unleashed from the rostrum in Liverpool by union leaders – as well as their assorted huffing and puffing – the harsh reality is that the union movement is not on the up in the way it should be in these circumstances.

Very few pay deals after strikes have left workers better off, if matching or beating the level of inflation is the measured used. Then there’s also the issues of whether the pay rises made up for the decline in the value of real wages since the global financial crash of 2008-09 as well as whether the amount of money sacrificed in lost wages due to striking was recouped. This made the conference’s strapline of “Winning at work” somewhat ironic to say the least.

On the issue of the new restrictions on striking for workers in fire and rescue, health, education, transport, nuclear decommissioning and border security, the union movement has known this was coming for well over a year.

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When the government consultation on establishing the code of practice for implementing the Act ends on October 6, it will not take long for employers to be ready to use its provisions. And yet the TUC is only now discussing what it should be doing practically to turn defiance into non-compliance.

Last May, the authoritative Labour Force Survey revealed union membership in 2022 fell by 200,000, with the proportion of all workers in unions (called union density) declining from 23.1% to 22.3%. This confounded growth among some individual unions such as the British Medical Association, National Education Union (NEU), the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) and Unite.

If this was a worrying external measure about how many workers are or are not attracted to join unions, probably more worrying is what is happening within unions using an internal measure. The most obvious measure is the participation of members in their own unions.

Even though more than 50,000 joined the NEU in the first three months of this year. When it came to the election for a new general secretary, held between February and March 2023, the turnout was just 9%. Previous elections for general secretaries routinely saw just 5% to 10% of members voting. Moreover, turnouts for elections to unions’ national executives showed no discernible uptick in 2023.

For the NEU, PCS, Unison and Unite, turnouts remained very low at between just 5-7%.

In ballots to decide whether or not pay deals would be accepted after strikes, turnouts were much higher but still not as high as they should have been. In the Communication Workers Union (CWU), NEU and PCS, for example, the turnouts were 67%, 60% and 47% respectively.

This means not only do unions leaders not have the mandates they should have – they also cannot credibly say “give me an army and I’ll go to war” as many generals can.

But all is not lost. In the cost of living fightback, new internal groupings were formed by grassroots members, which is a sign of democratic renewal. Such groups emerged in the CWU, Royal College of Nursing, PCS and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, for instance.

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And, of course, most ballots for strike action were won convincingly, even where a majority vote for action must also now equate to 40% all of those eligible to vote so that non-voters are effectively classed as “no” votes. This included a number of unions voting for and taking industrial action for the first time in their histories.

Perhaps, this is where some of the solutions to the problem of the democratic deficit may lie.

If union members are willing to vote in large numbers for tangible action that they themselves take to seek to defend and advance their own interests, then voting in assorted internal elections and other types of ballots could be enhanced. Being able to always vote electronically would no doubt help given that postal ballots are often legally required.

Yet, more importantly, if the positions up for election were seen to be more meaningful and more palpable, then it would be reasonable to deduce that the union electorates would also be more engaged even if the positions would always necessarily remain as instances of indirect, representative democracy.

Until unions resolve this dilemma of their own democratic deficit, they are always likely to be under-armed and outgunned. They desperately do need to be able to be armies led by generals that go to war to fight for their interests and to be the victors and not the vanquished.

Gregor Gall is visiting professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds