The days of regular beer and sandwiches at 10 Downing Street for trade union leaders are long gone, but the unions themselves should still be vitally important to British civil society. No one else brings together millions of working people in organisations they control to look after their own interests on their own terms.
And with the potential for huge economic change ahead, from Brexit to much more intensive use of technology as robots and AI start to move into spaces we previously thought were protected by an unreproducible human intelligence, my suspicion is that we may need our trade unions more than ever before.
“The people who gave you the weekend,” is how American labor unions justify their continued relevance to the United States and, of course, no one wants to work all the time. But the big worry for the years to come could be that more and more of us are pushed towards a casualised “gig” economy at the beck and call of over-powerful employers. Too much leisure could turn out to be as bad for us as too much work.
But unions have a big job to do if they are to stay relevant. Founded in the 19th century and shaped in the 20th, they are in danger of looking as old fashioned as a manual typewriter or a fax machine.
Too often unions get in the news for messing about with London politics while members in the regions see their pay and conditions eroded. That contrast is not one that engenders confidence.
My union, Unite, is the biggest in the country and is about to have an election for its leader – the general secretary. The incumbent, Len McCluskey, is hoping to be re-elected and serve on into his 70s. He’s facing a tough challenge though, especially from Gerard Coyne, the West Midlands regional secretary who is close to twenty years his junior.
This blog, I hope, will report on how that contest develops. Buckle up.