The union movement came together last week for TUC Congress to discuss the challenges and opportunities that the coming year will bring.

The most pressing challenge is undoubtedly the Trade Union Bill. The Conservative manifesto promised a minimum statutory threshold for strike ballots of 50%, and an additional threshold for ‘essential public services’ where 40% of eligible members would have to vote for action.

The bill though – which recently passed the first hurdle in the Commons – goes far further than the manifesto commitments. Employers would be allowed to bring in agency workers to cover striking employees, allowing them to nullify the impact of industrial action. It also introduces significant and burdensome new restrictions on picketers, for example requiring them to give two weeks’ notice if you intend to use a loudhailer or a banner. It even makes unlawful picketing a criminal offence.

Irrespective of the wisdom of the measures, there seems to be little evidence of the need for them. Britain already has some of the most restrictive strike regulations in Europe and these proposals would make us even more of an outlier. The Government claims to be protecting people from the impact of strikes. Yet levels of industrial action are at a historic low. The annual average of days lost to strikes is under a tenth the level of the 1980s. There is also little evidence of intimidation of non-striking workers; the Government’s Carr Review into this failed to make recommendations citing an overly politicised environment. This bill seems to be aiming to solve problems that do not exist.

A broad and growing coalition of organisations have expressed concern about the Trade Union Bill. As one might expect, the TUC is vehemently opposed to the measures, but there is much broader unease about the bill. Over 100 industrial relations academics signed a letter highlighting the lack of an evidence base for the Bill. Liberty, Amnesty International and the British Institute of Human Rights have called the bill a ‘major attack on civil liberties’. The Government’s own advisory body – The Regulatory Policy Committee – has raised concerns over the impact assessment and the failure adequately to make the case for the changes. The CIPD which represents the HR community has raised concerns with Peter Cheese calling it an ‘outdated response to the challenges of the modern workplace’. The IPA shares these concerns.

But alongside this legislative challenge to trade unions, the movement faces an existential threat in declining union membership. In 1979 – the year Thatcher entered Downing Street –13 million people belonged to a union. Today, despite a larger workforce, there are just 6.4 million members. Union density has fallen in public sector and in the private sector just one employee in seven is a member. Unions are finding it particularly difficult to recruit younger workers. Two in five workers are under 35, but just one in five trade union member is. The proportion of union members over 50 has almost doubled in just 20 years. Unions need urgently to address this decline, and identify effective solutions to recruiting members, particularly younger workers and those in the private sector.

But why does this matter? Trade unions are essential actors in our modern labour market. First, unions give working people a voice. The UK has the second lowest level of employee participation in the EU – beaten into last place by Lithuania – and just one in five say their employer is good at allowing them to influence decisions. Unions are vital outlets for employee voice, allowing working people to have a say and influence decisions at work.

Second, unions are crucial for promoting fair pay. Members benefit from a ‘wage premium’ with average hourly income 16.7% higher than non-members. On a wider level the rise and fall of union membership closely mirrors the proportion of income going to the top 1%. Unions help increase the bargaining power of working people; a strong union movement means fair pay, a greater proportion of GDP going to labour. By making the workplace fairer, unions make society fairer.

Finally, unions can play a central role in driving up productivity in the UK. Following the recession, productivity stalled and levels are now 17% behind the pre-crisis trend. Unions can be part of the solution to the productivity puzzle and recent research by NEF has set out how important a strong trade union movement is to a sustainable economic recovery. Some of our most productive industries – from automotive to aerospace – are amongst the most heavily unionised. These industries show the ‘global race’ need not be a race to the bottom. The best way for us to compete internationally is based on a high value economy, characterised by high skills, good pay, and extensive employee involvement.

Instead of seeing trade unions as ‘the enemy within’ whose powers need to be curtailed through legislation, unions should be seen as essential partners in delivering a fairer and more productive economy. The government should look to work in partnership with both trade unions and with employers to address common challenges in the British labour market, and build an economy which is fairer and more productive.

Joe Dromey is Head of Policy and Research at the IPA. The IPA are soon to launch a research project looking at trade union membership and recruitment. If you want to find out more about the project, get in touch with Joe Dromey (0207 759 1004, [email protected])