“We’re all in this together” was the rallying call during the first phase of the pandemic. Scientific research shows team cohesion erodes within an atomised workforce. This is a problem for bosses — particularly if they feel threatened by trade unions. These could prove to be unlikely beneficiaries of coronavirus.
The pandemic has brought furloughing, redundancies and the supercharged growth of lightly unionised Big Tech. UK plans to scrap EU worker protections — such as the 48-hour working week — will make British employees feel particularly precarious.
Some 92,000 new members joined Unison, one of the UK’s biggest unions, in the first five months of 2020. That was a net rise of more than 24,000. The furore in England over school opening late last year led to 21,000 teachers signing up to the National Education Union, which pre-pandemic counted 450,000 members.
Union membership numbers in the UK have been ticking up in recent years, though they still stand at half the 1979 peak. The most recent available data for the whole workforce, which predates the pandemic, shows 6.4m Brits, or 23.5 per cent of the workforce, were card-carrying members.
In the US, union membership continues to decline, standing at 11.2 per cent, or 13.2m workers, in 2019. But the maturation of Big Tech businesses may help organisers. Employees at Alphabet, no longer content with chummy bulletin boards after a series of strategic missteps by management, have set up their own union. This tiny group will hold little sway unless it can grow. But the move may reflect a shift within the private sector.
For all the banter on video calls, members of virtual teams are more likely to feel isolated and put-upon. Lacking informal support from comrades at the water cooler or lunch queue, more workers may be prepared to pay a union fee for it.
Employees are increasingly willing to become whistleblowers, typically reporting the nefarious doings of supervisors. The US Securities and Exchange Commission received 6,900 tips last fiscal year, a third more than in 2019.
Trade unions still face a grinding battle to penetrate the workplaces of the new economy and to recruit younger members. But with the pandemic entering its second year, executives must be alert to discontent triggered by new working arrangements, from supermarket staff required to police mask wearing by customers to trainees locked down for months in tiny bedsits.
Cutting employment protections and office space will initially boost bottom lines. But both trends impose financial and psychological costs on staff. The feebler the trade-offs provided by employers, the better it will be for union recruitment.
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