In the 1970s, American Sociologist Mark Granovetter posited a theory of social action based on what he called ‘weak ties’. Granovetter argued that the strength of community and social movements comes from the amount of interaction they have with each other. He used the example of two American neighbourhoods, one white working-class (WWC) and one Italian, who were trying to resist redevelopment of their area. He observed that in the WWC neighbourhood, everyone worked in the same factories, drank in the same pubs, attended the same events etc. In contrast, the Italian neighbourhood was based primarily on strong familial relationships, with little interaction between families. In the end, the WWC neighbourhood were able to form a strong community resistance based upon the pre-existing ties between workers and friends and succeeded in protecting their area. In contrast, the Italians were never able to agree on who should be leaders of the movement and could not organise, and they lost their fight.
The lack of these ‘weak ties’ is what is eating into the trade union movement so vigorously. Since 1979, trade union membership has halved from 13 million to 6.5 million and only 14% of the private sector is unionised compared to 54% of the public sector. Part of the reason for this decline is anti-trade union legislation passed by the Thatcher government, but there is another pivotal factor that is often overlooked; the nature of work itself has changed.
The trade union movement was birthed in the fires of industry. Its genesis was in thousands of people doing similar work in large factories, mines or building yards, who lived in terraces and communities built especially for them. These surroundings made it easy for people to organise and unite around a common goal. It created a support network which could sustain strikes and gave a strong feeling of pride and identity. However, this world no longer exists.
Almost nowhere with the homogeneity of a mining or dockers town now exists. Workers live in mixed communities where people have vastly differing jobs, interests and lifestyles. It is now far harder for unions to build up a base from which to work with. People are less and less likely to identify with class, instead choosing gender, sexual, ethnic or even regional identity. This makes the themes and tactics of the trade union movement somewhat off putting, particularly to young people.
For better or for worse, we now live in a world comprised largely of single-issue, low-effort ‘clicktivism’. The extraordinary growth of sites such as 38 Degrees and Change.org pays testament to the new type of politics. People are largely unmoved by grand notions of the struggle of capital against labour, but will get hot under the collar about Dapper Laughs having a show on ITV2.
I’m very sceptical about the effectiveness of clicktivism on its own, but if trade unions could find a way to utilise this online revolution it could become very potent. There are already signs of the movement coming round to this idea, with Unite and the GMB running an online campaign intended to force Las Iguanas, Turtle Bay and Pizza Express to reverse their shameful policy on staff tips. Additionally, online voting will be a key tool to overcome the Tories’ draconian strike ballot threshold. Apps could be developed to tell members when their union has successfully negotiated a deal with employers, or give easily accessible legal advice.
I am not saying that the trade union movement should jump on every bandwagon, but there is a real gap in the market for tech-savvy trade unions. Young people have it harder than their parents - from zero-hour contracts, to rocketing rents, to lessening social mobility. Yet, they are also less-likely than ever to see society as a grand class struggle and be turned on by abstract notions of neoliberalism and solidarity. A trade union movement which embraced online activism and new ways of interacting with workers would be making a huge positive step to rebuilding a strong membership base to counter the regressive policies we will see in the next five years.
Sam Fawcett is a Young Fabians member
This article was first featured in Volume 19, Issue 1 | Autumn 2015 of Anticipations