Trade Union Heritage


Whilst we’re fretting about how engaged our employees are it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. A few decades ago personnel, as we tended to be called, had much less direct contact with individuals. There were sides. There were intermediaries. We had Industrial Relations, they had Trade Unions. It’s no coincidence that the term employee engagement was coined in 1990, following a decade of successful political efforts to curb union power. Membership has continued to decline ever since, along with the traditional unionised industries like manufacturing and mining. The final nail in the coffin has been the parallel exponential growth of service industries, which have the lowest levels of union membership of all sectors.

And despite this, the unions aren’t taking it lying down. At least a few times a year the threat of a strike, and even actual strikes, means that travel chaos is threatened or our kids get a day off school. If you want a real flavour of trade union zeal come to my part of the world.

It’s the country of Billy Elliott and George Gently. The North East is reputed to be the first place in the UK that coal was mined. The small town where I live was created due to mining and in its heyday was “ringed with collieries”, including at least 5 major pits. Conditions for the miners were harsh to say the least, both at work and at home. It’s not surprising that trade unions, once legalised, flourished around workers who faced death daily chipping coal with a pick axe far underground from a seam only 18 inches high. Despite the last pit in the town closing in 1935, mining still has a massive impact on local people.

It’s one of my favourite days of the year. The second Saturday in July is the Miners’ Gala, known locally as the Big Meeting. It has it roots in the 1800s, when local miners marched miles on foot to the magistrates in the city to try to uphold their rights. Nowadays, although the marchers are no longer required to walk from their local villages, each pit is represented by their traditional banner and a brass band. Trade unionism has been a thread throughout, although these days the beer is served is plastic cups.

I’m not a political person, by which I mean I don’t feel any affiliation to a particular political party or ideology. Formally studying politics at A-level really taught me to look at issues from different perspectives, a skill which I certainly find useful in my role today. So while it won’t be me holding up a placard for anything, I think it’s important somebody does it. It’s good to make a stand for something you believe in. Union membership, although significantly lower than 25 years ago, is just about steady and has been for some time. Even in their absence there will always be disagreements, clashes and conflict to keep us in a job. Industrial relations (and personnel along with it) might be gone, but employee relations is still an important specialism in hr.

What is your experience of Trade Union activism in your area/ culture?

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