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'Tackling Inequality: The Role of Trade Unions' - Public Meeting Report

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Report to LSSI, University of Leeds and to Leeds Trades Council

 Tackling Inequality: The Role of Trade Unions

Public meeting - Thursday 6th December, 6.30 pm at Leeds Civic Hall.

This meeting brought together social scientists from the University with trade unionists from Leeds and the region in order to discuss the recent report on this topic published by the trade union thinktank Centre for Labour and Social Studies. The meeting was jointly sponsored by the Leeds Social Sciences Institute and the Leeds Trade Union Council, and organised by Hugo Radice (Visiting Research Fellow, POLIS, and member of the LSSI’s Inequalities Research Network) and Ian Greenwood (Lecturer, Leeds University Business School, member of the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change, and of the executive of Leeds TUC).

The main speaker was the report’s author and CLASS Research Officer Liam Kennedy (a Leeds graduate), followed by contributions from two discussants, Professor Richard Wilkinson (co-author, The Spirit Level and The Inner Level) and Jane Aitchison (President, Leeds Trade Union Council). A third invited discussant, Alex Watson (Head of Human Resources, Leeds City Council) was unable to attend because of illness. PowerPoint presentations by Liam Kennedy and Professor Wilkinson were circulated to participants after the meeting and are available from the organisers.  Around 35-40 people attended the meeting, divided more or less equally between academics, students and local trade unionists.

Liam Kennedy’s presentation began with evidence on recent trends in income inequality in the UK, which show a sharp rise in the 1980s and 1990s followed by relative stability. Overall measures are expected to rise again in the next few years, while the bottom decile have seen no increase in real income for some 20 years. Significant consequences of increased inequality include slower economic growth, lower life expectancy, wider gaps in educational achievement, and reduced political participation.

Trade unions are an integral part of this picture: there is evidence of an inverse correlation between union density and inequality, while worsening conditions of work lead to lower productivity growth. Trade union education work contributes to skills development, while effective workplace representation is associated with higher productivity and lower income inequality. Union membership has fallen especially among younger workers, while the ‘gig economy’ and outsourcing has created a widening gap between secure and insecure workers.

Reversing these trends requires the repeal of laws that have increasingly restricted union activity, as well as greater efforts to organise in non-union workplaces. Specific proposals include restoring a Ministry of Labour; encouraging worker membership of company boards and new forms of ownership; and the reinstatement of political education in schools.

Richard Wilkinson welcomed the report, and added that growing inequality was linked to reduced social mobility, and greater disrespect for those who don’t succeed; the problem cannot be addressed simply by improving education. Material differences in income and wealth increase the salience of class and status, leading to growing status anxiety, mental illness, bullying and depression. Inequality coupled with consumerism also leads to higher levels of household debt. The extraordinary growth in the pay of chief executives has also been a factor in increasing inequality. Lastly, income differences fell right across the advanced industrial countries between the 1930s and the 1970s.

Jane Aitchison drew on her experience working as a social security official, active in the Public & Commercial Services Union, and currently prospective parliamentary candidate for Labour in Pudsey. She highlighted the gender dimension: women now form more than half of UK trade union membership, but still face an average gender pay gap of 18%, and worse among older women: in 2015, 54,000 women had been sacked for becoming pregnant, while research showed that women have borne 86% of recent public expenditure austerity cuts. Wage stagnation in the context of weaker unions has led to growing poverty, and a recent Joseph Rowntree study reported that 4 million people are now poor despite being in work. Not only are unions weaker, but high legal and administrative fees prohibit many from seeking redress through industrial tribunals. Welfare recipients face a hostile environment of sanctions and tests, as well as the universal credit fiasco, and benefit take-up rates are falling as a result.

Questions from the floor raised a wide range of issues: the role of privatisation in accentuating  inequalities of income and wealth; the need to defend pensions for all; union strategy and tactics, from mobilising young workers, to more effective political intervention, to direct action; the potential of universal basic income in reducing inequality; and inequality as a policy issue being crowded out by Brexit.

A follow-up meeting is now under discussion with colleagues in the university and in the trade unions about future areas of collaboration, including research and education: we welcome all suggestions.

Ian Greenwood –

Hugo Radice –