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Frances O’Grady on the place of trade unions in the modern world.

In my job, I am privileged to meet workers from all over the country. One of the workers whose story has stayed with me is Daisy, who worked in a cinema in south London. Daisy and her colleagues just weren’t paid enough to live on – but by banding together as a union, they were able to get a 23% pay rise.

Daisy isn’t the media’s stereotype of a trade unionist. She’s young, on a flexible contract, and working in the private sector. But her experience tells us a lot about the role of unions – and our future.

In 2015, unions are still about making sure that workers have a voice and some power where most of us spend most of our waking hours – in the workplace. Coming together in a union gives staff a way to speak collectively, to pool their individual power and bring some balance to their employment.

But the world has changed. Workers change jobs, employers and even careers far more frequently. Zero hours contracts and the rise of self-employment are reinventing casualisation, even as some welcome the freedom of more flexible forms of work People are living – and remaining in the workforce – far longer. Technological innovation is all-pervasive and changing the nature of jobs. Society is becoming more atomised.

And yet most people still want a decent job they can be proud of, enough money to live a decent life and enough time to spend with their loved ones. Modern, confident trade unions not only meet those aspirations; they are also part of the answer to building the high-productivity, high-wage economy on which working lives depend.

For unions, the future is organising in new sectors, where short-term and flexible contracts are all too common. In some ways, these workers face the same challenges as those workers who grew trade unionism during industrialisation 150 years ago – low pay, unpredictable hours and no control over their conditions of work.

Organising in these workplaces is difficult – but some unions have shown the way, negotiating industry-wide agreements that protect the most vulnerable. And where workers find it hard to organise through fear of victimisation, customer campaigns to shame poor employers can help stop shoddy treatment. We’ve seen this recently with the fair tips campaign – pressure from customers changed restaurants’ unfair policies.

And more than this, unions must help shape the skills revolution – which is creating better jobs for some, but leaving too many behind. All over the UK, unions are working with employers to boost workplace learning and deliver training opportunities to individual workers who otherwise would miss out.

Each pound invested in union learning generates a return of £9.15, shared between the employer and the worker, in terms both of increased wages and increased productivity.

But the really big improvements could come through extending collective bargaining: using the power that comes when workers decide together to act in their common interest, and negotiate for better training as well as pay, pensions, family friendly rights, safety at work, sickness and holiday benefits.

That’s why we need to extend collective bargaining to more sectors and more industries, so more workers benefit from agreements. Social movements like the Living Wage campaign prove that there is strong public concern and an appetite for government intervention to help bring more employers to the table.

New industry-wide agreements between employers and unions could transform the working life chances of the so-called ‘precariat’ at a stroke – and help reduce the in-work benefit bill into the bargain. And it would give all workers a chance to progress beyond the legal floor of workplace rights to build the life they want for their families.

And that’s why we are so worried by the threat to the right to strike in the Government’s Trade Union Bill. The democratic right to decide together to stop work, as a last resort when an employer won’t negotiate, is the ultimate source of strength when workers are faced with injustice. It is rightly used rarely in the UK – but further restrictions on this right can only tip the balance of power even further against working people.

Daisy would not have won her pay rise without it. In the union movement, our priority is building the kind of high-wage, high-productivity economy that grows the cake, and delivers fair shares. Our role – as the voice of working people in Britain – is vital in that. And we’d far rather work with the Government to deliver that vision than have to fight their threats to the right to strike.

Frances O’Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC. She originally wrote this piece for Bright Blue’s Centre Write magazine in November.