Trade unions must modernise their image

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Unions 21The Paul Richards column

On Monday Unions 21 will launch a new guide addressing the issue of trade unions’ image. After a week of trade unions being in the news, and some predictable attacks on unions and their leaders by the right-wing press and blogs, the timing couldn’t be better. If unions want to be taken seriously in the modern workplace, then outdated methods of recruitment, activity and language must go. If you want to know more about the event or publication, the link is here.

Below is an edited version of my contribution to the report The Future of Unions’ Image:

The most important insight into communications and campaigning is contained in the simple truth ‘it’s not what you say that matters; it’s what people hear.’

The US Republican strategist Frank Luntz – a kind of evil Peter Mandelson – anchors his book ‘Words That Work’ in this idea. The book is like peering behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz – you can see it’s all done with levers, pulleys and coloured smoke. For example, in the right-wing lexicon ‘inheritance tax’ becomes the ‘death tax’. ‘Drilling for oil’ becomes ‘energy exploration’. Those opposed to legal abortion become ‘pro-life’.

Words and phrases can frame a political debate, shape the way policies and ideas are understood. You might remember the ferocious political battles over the ‘poll tax’ 20 years ago. No-one, not even the Tories who invented it, would today call it by its proper name ‘the community charge.’ Community Charge (not ‘tax’, mark you) sounds vaguely benign. ‘Poll tax’ has echoes of the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt of the 1380s; it also fits neatly into newspaper headlines, unlike ‘community charge’. Opposition to the poll tax was shaped by affixing a name it to which sounds so utterly malign. Consider how tainted and corrupted the phrase ‘big society’ has become. Soon it will be so toxic, you won’t hear it without thinking ‘Tory cuts’.

George Orwell is our guide to so much that is useful in understanding political language. He made the point that not only do we shape our language, but that our language shapes us. In Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948) Winston Smith’s job was to remove words from the dictionary, to reduce the scope for revolutionary or seditious thought. In his seminal essay Politics and the English Language (1946) Orwell writes:

‘A man might take to drink because he feels himself a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.’

Modern English is an amalgam of so many other languages – Latin, French, Anglo-Saxon, German, combined with words and phrases from across the Empire, and latterly, the United States. It contains many ways to say the same thing. For the writer, this allows endless variety and possibility for expression. Orwell told us to never write anything ‘you are used to seeing in print.’ With such a rich palette, there is never an excuse for blacks, whites and greys.

But it also opens the possibility for miscommunication and misunderstanding. If someone asks you to join them for ‘dinner’, at what time should you turn up? At 12.30pm north of the River Trent. At 7.30pm in London and the south of England. What of everyday sets of initials such as PC? It might be ‘politically correct’, or ‘police constable’, or even ‘personal computer’. What about regional dialect words? In the English language there are dozens of words to describe the passage behind a row of terraced houses, or the passage between houses built close to together. You might hear ‘ginnel’ or ‘jennel’ or ‘gennel’ in Leeds or Sheffield, ‘twitten’ in Sussex, or ‘gulley’ in the Black Country. The humble bread roll might be a ‘barm cake’ in Salford, a ‘cob’ in Leicester, a ‘stottie’ in Newcastle or a ‘bap’ in Scotland (or ‘focaccia’ in Islington).

To this potential confusion we can add the bane of modern life: jargon. Jargon is language developed by a particular group, trade, or profession to achieve two things. First, it unites the group, and allows speedy communication between people with the same understanding and interests. Dr Adam Fox of St Mary’s, Paddington, makes an annual survey of medical slang, used by medics to describe their patients. He has uncovered such gems as PAFO (pissed and fell over), GPO (good for parts only), NFN (normal for Norfolk), TEETH (tried everything else, try homeopathy) as well as ‘the Freud Squad’ for the psychiatry department and a ‘code brown’ for, well you can guess. This jargon, along with more serious examples of medical linguistic shortcuts, means that medics can communicate with one another in situations where speed matters.

Trade unionism, like every other walk of life, has developed its own slang, jargon and insiders-only language. If the trade union movement is to reach out to a new generation of workers and enlist them as the next generation of trade union activists, it must not talk in a language which is obscure, off-putting and alienating.

It’s not merely the rich, historical vocabulary of the trade unions (my union, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), has ‘Father of Chapel’ and ‘Mother of Chapel’ to describe its workplace representatives). These terms stem from the days when printing was the sole preserve of the church, or later, when illegal trade union activity was given ‘cover’ by the nonconformist church.

Nor is it the unhelpful caricature of trade unionism in popular culture, (for example Fred Kite in I’m All Right Jack (1959): ‘We do not and cannot accept the principle that incompetence justifies dismissal. That is victimisation.’)

It is also the language of modern employment law and workplace regulations. See how many of these you can define in everyday language. (The TUC provides a handy jargon-buster to help you).

Bargaining unit

Certification officer

Collective bargaining

Constructive dismissal

COT3

EWC

Five statutory fair reasons

Grievance procedure

Health surveillance

Notice of termination

RIDDOR

Shop steward

Transfers of undertakings

Unauthorised deduction from wages

Victimisation

Zero hours contract

It is heartbreaking to see an enthusiastic, new trade union representative turn into a solicitor who’s swallowed an employment law manual within a matter of months. The beauty of trade unionism is that it is democratic, and any member is as good as any other. The use of jargon only serves to create a cadre of cognoscenti within the union movement. It also bewilders anyone new to a union, or contemplating joining one. All of this talk of ‘members’, ‘shop stewards’, ‘branches’, ‘minutes’, ‘workplaces’ and ‘resolutions’ is another world. It creates the impression that a trade union, rather than being immediate, relevant and important, is in fact an odd sect-like activity, like train-spotting, real ale or nudism. As one participant in a recent Unions 21 event pointed out, it is only in the world of trade unionism that the word ‘management’ has wholly negative connotations. Anywhere else, it suggests either something to aspire to, or a perfectly sensible and desirable activity.

The recent findings of the Unions 21 and TUC research into young peoples’ attitudes to trade unions showed that the young people surveyed had some positive word associations with trade unionism. Words such as ‘campaigning’, ‘advice’ and ‘rights’ were mentioned. Also, ideas such as ‘fairness’, ‘togetherness’, and ‘protection’ came up. On the downside, though, were the negative connotations which came to the young people’s minds: ‘trouble-makers’, ‘scaremongering’, and a range of words associated with disputes: ‘picket lines’ ‘strikes’ ‘walk-outs’ and ‘disagreements’. Disruption on London Underground during strikes was also cited by young workers in London.

The obvious conclusion is that if trade unions want to be relevant and open to new members, and if they want to turn members into activists, then the ways in which they use language must change.

If you want a handy couple of metaphors, think of a barrier and a bridge. Is what you’ve written a bridge to understanding, or a barrier? If a barrier, then knock it to the ground, as it is preventing the success of the trade union movement as surely as a union-busting law or strike-breaking boss.

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