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Trade unions must move away from ‘white male breadwinner’ image to survive

Trade unions need to move away from the traditional model of being for “white male breadwinners” if they are to survive and rebuild in the 21st century, the author of a new book on the movement has said.

Eve Livingston began work on Make Bosses Pay before the coronavirus pandemic but soon realised that lockdown and its impact on workers had made the case for collective action even stronger.

Her new book is a mixture of history and analysis of the trade union movement and argues it must now appeal to younger, more diverse workers if it is to thrive in an era of repressive anti-union laws introduced by the Tories.

The Glasgow-based journalist told the Record the recent election of women candidates to the top jobs at two of the UK’s largest unions was a positive step forward on the path to rebuilding.

Maryhill-born Christina McAnea took charge of Unison, the UK’s largest union, in January while Sharon Graham was announced as the new general secretary of Unite last month.

Livingston said: “I make no bones about saying that unions are built in the mould of white male breadwinners as that is what they emerged from – a time when men were going off to work in industries and leaving their wives at home to look after the children.

“They were expected to earn a wage for the whole family, and that’s how things like collective bargaining emerged.

“But I think if unions are going to survive and rebuild and be powerful again, they really have to get away from that model.

“I think the election of women leaders is a really good step – but there is a lot more work that needs to be done in terms of internal democracy structures to make sure marginalised groups that their interests are at the heart of what unions are doing.

“I am really encouraged by the election of people like Sharon Graham who have talked about those issues.”

Livingston became aware of the importance of unions while working in the public sector and for charities before becoming a journalist.

She insisted younger workers were not hostile to the idea of joining a union – but many were put off by a perceived lack of effectiveness.

She added: “I became increasingly aware that unions – and I mean that in a broad sense of not just trade unions, but collectives like tenants’ unions – they are the best kind of tool ordinary people for taking control of their own lives and making a difference in society at large.

“Some people will view unions as a very specific kind of workplace issue, but what I try to do in the book is paint them in a wider kind of context.

“I do think there is sense among people in their 20s and 30s that unions are not necessarily a bad thing but I think there is a feeling they are for a different type of worker from a different time.

“One thing I heard a lot from my friends when I was writing the book was they wanted to join a union, but the did not view them as that effective.

“I think that’s a symptom of the increasingly difficult context unions have operated in for decades due to anti-union laws and the changing shape of the labour market.

“But research implies there is no hostility to unions among young people, instead it implies either a lack of knowledge or a low expectation of work in the first place.”

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