Challenging poverty through trade unions and collective action

On the fifth day of Challenge Poverty Week 2018, Francis Stuart from our Policy team looks at how labour market trends are contributing to poverty in Scotland, and why rebuilding trade union power is key to tackling inequality.

Much has been made of Scotland and the UK’s ‘record levels of employment’. Yet real wages remain lower than they were ten years ago and one in ten workers are in insecure forms of employment such as zero-hour contracts, temporary work and low-paid self-employment. More still are underemployed – working part-time but seeking more hours.

These labour market trends feed into the picture of poverty in Scotland today.

More than one in five people in Scotland live in poverty. The likelihood of being in poverty is higher still for women, lone parents, ethnic minorities, and disabled people and their families.

In-work poverty is also on the rise, increasing from 440,000 in 2011-2014 to 540,000 in 2014-17.

That paid work is no longer a guarantee against poverty should concern us all. So how can we address this?

Well a good place to start, whether you are a policymaker or a professional, an activist or an academic, would be to promote trade union membership and collective bargaining coverage.

There is a strong body of evidence to show that high trade union membership and collective bargaining is associated with lower levels of economic inequality. This can be seen historically in the UK where inequality, particularly at the extreme end, has risen at the same time as trade union membership has fallen.

Trade union membership and top 1% share of income in the UK

graph blog 1

It can also been seen across the developed world, where countries with higher collective bargaining arrangements, have lower levels of extreme inequality.

Collective bargaining and top 1% share of income in EU countries (2010)

blog graph 2 

While the current labour market and trade union membership trends are concerning, they aren’t fixed. Trade union membership levels only began to fall in 1979 due to a concerted and deliberate political attack by Government and elites. It can be undone through workplace organising and political support from outside the workplace.

Rising poverty isn’t predetermined either – it is driven by low-paid, precarious work; high housing costs and a diminishing welfare state. Yes addressing these issues requires policy change from Government but, as the link to trade unions shows, it also requires institutions and political movements that fight for that change.

Positively, there are a range of inspiring efforts underway. Only yesterday, workers at Wetherspoons, TGI Fridays, McDonald’s, Uber Eats and Deliveroo walked out on strike in a day of action coordinated by trade unions.

Later this month more than 8,000 Glasgow City Council workers – mostly women carers, cleaners and caterers who’ve been historically discriminated against – are set to strike after Unison and the GMB members overwhelmingly voted to take industrial action over equal pay.

Out with the trade union movement, a number of anti-poverty groups, disabled peoples groups and groups such as Living Rent, are led by those with first-hand experience of challenging those responsible for discrimination and exploitation.

Let’s learn the lessons from these organisations and movements. Not to stop making the case for policy change but to ensure that it is sustained by a fundamental transformation of the power dynamics within our economy.


Challenge Poverty Week is organised by The Poverty Alliance. Find out more about their work here.

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