Working with trade unions – what’s not to like?

Economists in years 10 and 13 travelled to the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University where Kevin Rowan, Head of Organisation and Services at the TUC, discussed how trade unions make a positive difference in the workplace.  His findings show that union membership has risen in recent years, reversing decades of declining membership.  Workplaces without unions are free to push zero-hours contracts and/or bogus self-employment under the guise of the ‘gig economy’.  Remarkably, last year, 180 employers were found to be in breach of minimum wage legislation, and that’s just the employers we know about!  With an election on the horizon, a new government presents opportunities for the TUC to seek better access to workplaces and improved collective bargaining powers.  Exciting times in economics and politics.

The TUC wants everyone to have a great job, to be paid fairly, and their members to have a good experience at work.  Empirical evidence suggests that unions really do make a difference in the workplace as workers experience a 5% wage premium, are less likely to have unpaid overtime, and are likely to be twice as safe in the workplace.

Countries that we should look to for examples of good practice include Denmark, Italy, and France.  It is hard to believe that in August 2018, the Frenchwing of British pest control and hygiene giant Rentokil Initial was ordered to pay a former employee €60,000 (£53,000) because it failed to respect his “right to disconnect” from his phone and computer outside office hours.

The free-rider problem, a microeconomic concept, was touched upon by Sarah Larmour who asked what should be done about non-members who reap all of the benefits but incur none of the costs of union membership.  Perhaps all employees should pay a union subscription but don’t necessarily have to join the union.  Not quite a closed shop!

Students were invited to join delegates at the Tyneside Cinema for a screening of Zero Hour: The Future of Work in Newcastle & Beyond, an account of the gig economy, zero-hours contracts and devastating cuts to the UK care system and their tragic effects on a working family.  A film sure to provoke public debate on the modern face of work and poverty and life on the margins of austerity Britain.