There is a large volume of evidence that economic inequality is a big problem in the UK, writes Lydia Hayes. Yet as much as we need to know about the real-life misery it causes, we also need to know what can be done to put it right. In a brief, to-the- …

Tim Lezard Critical Economics

Lydia Hayes bookThere is a large volume of evidence that economic inequality is a big problem in the UK, writes Lydia Hayes.

Yet as much as we need to know about the real-life misery it causes, we also need to know what can be done to put it right. In a brief, to-the-point and accessibly-written new book, Professor Tonia Novitz and I are positive about how trade unions could help to build a more equal society.

Low wage earners have been hit by the devaluing of the minimum wage, pay freezes, benefit cuts, short-term jobs and zero-hours contracts.  Meanwhile, wealthy people benefit from tax avoidance schemes, massive pay increases for company directors and opportunities to make a profit from the dismantling of the public sector.  However, without hope of change, the constant stream of ‘news’ about our unequal society can make inequality begin to sound like a ‘normal’ state of affairs that we had all better get used to, if we haven’t already.

In Trade Unions and Economic Inequality we set out the clear connection between the weakening of trade unions and the rise of economic inequality.  We review a strong body of evidence that confirms collective bargaining by trade unions as an effective way to reduce economic inequality.  Although enjoying strong public support, trade unions are the victims of forty years of criticism in the mainstream press and by the political elite.  The law has been used as a weapon of restraint and trade unions continue to operate in the face of massive legal obstacles designed to weaken their effectiveness.  The economic case for their renewal is urgent and requires trade unions to be able to freely engage in collective bargaining and promote the democratic involvement of all workers in a fairer future.  On the basis of the evidence, we argue that collective bargaining is an essential component of action against economic inequality and that fresh legal support for trade unions is needed.

The three main political parties are each committed to continued public spending restraint.  This means that whoever wins the next election, it is highly unlikely that economic equality will be advanced by top-down investment in public services, top-ups to wages or improvements in the extent of social security.    The revitalisation of trade unions and a renewal of collective bargaining is urgently overdue and can be achieved without engaging in debates about public spending.  What is needed is a change in the political attitude to trade unions.  Trade unions are, above all, about self-help because they give workers the ability to act together to realise their legal rights and build a fairer society.

A change in political attitude means legal reform.  Our recommendations include:

1) Legal support for unions to freely organise and engage in collective action.

2) Legal amendment so that all trade union members can be represented through collective bargaining.

3) Establishing sectoral collective bargaining to set minimum terms and conditions across industries.

4) More effective protection of basic rights to free speech, freedom of association and freedom of assembly.

5) Allowing trade unions to have access to workers at their place of work so they can freely advise them on the benefits of membership and collective bargaining.

6) That information about trade unions is made available to workers at their place of work and for it to be easy for them to join a trade union if they so choose.

Legal reforms in support of free trade unions should be a key focus in campaigning attempts to reduce economic inequality and make the UK a fairer place to live and work.

Trade Unions and Economic Inequality is available from the Institute of Employment Rights.


Dr Lydia Hayes holds a Law and Society Research Fellowship, Cardiff University School of Law and Politics.



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License.
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Tim Lezard

Campaigning journalist, editor of @Union_NewsUK, NUJ exec member; lover of cricket, football, cycling, theatre and dodgy punk bands

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