By Dan Whittle
If you’re not a member you might not recognise some of the unions featured on the pages of LabourList over this long May Day weekend. A typical member is now a graduate woman professional wearing office clothes, not a male manual worker.
Today’s unions are finding new ways to listen to their members, support their activists, invest in skills and learning, fight inequality and making a strong contribution to society. Many have turned themselves around by paying close attention to their members’ wishes. Surveys, panels, polling and the internet are used to keep in touch. Prospect has the ‘e-branch‘, where members can discuss workplace issues together online.
Unions are supporting activists by putting care and effort into training, advice and information. Equality reps, Union Learning reps and Environment reps are meeting the new workplace priorities, and are more likely to be younger.
Unions are also investing substantially in members and working with employers to invest in training. The rise in the Union Learning Rep from 5,000 in 2003 to 15,000 in 2007, shows the appetite amongst members for learning. During the recession, it’s an area where unions and employers have common cause.
A strong sense of fairness motivates most members and activists. That is why the fight on equality – equal pay for women, for example, has been made a priority. But unions are also fighting for wider social justice aims, against racism, and for international campaigns, such as Justice for Colombia. People are joining unions not just for better conditions at work, but to be part of an organisation that campaigns on these issues.
Unions are developing a mix of approaches to recruiting and organising, striking a balance between, for example, individual casework and collective action. Though all this work is known to a union’s own members, it is not always known to wider society or a media that cannot move on from the old stereotypes.
Unions need the space to think creatively about the challenges ahead, about how to keep the transformation going and about how to project a positive image, reaching out to new people. Unions 21 – the progressive think tank for unions – is important in providing that space.
LabourList readers who are young trade union activists can get involved in the Unions 21 Young Leaders event we have planned with Ed Miliband MP for later in May, please contact me for more details at email@example.com. This article was based on the Unions 21 publication by Tom Wilson, ‘The Future of Unions’. For a free copy email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.