Blueprint for trade union renaissance shows how much we have still to do

17th November, 2017 12:00 pm

The new pamphlet from the Changing Work Centre – a joint Community/Fabian Society venture – has been put together with some impressively heavyweight labour movement support as it seeks to set out a blueprint for what it terms a “renaissance” of private sector trade unionism.

Cameron Tait’s report is well written and designer Georgie Lowry has done a good job in making it engaging and accessible.

The output nestles in amongst a range of related work, much of which is name-checked: The TUC’s Young Core Worker project, Unions21’s Changing World of Work, The CWU’s call – adopted by Congress in September – for a “new deal” for workers and unions, and proposals on young workers from SPERI in collaboration with unions such as the GMB.

The CWC contribution is an 11 point plan for growth:

  • Answer the “what can you do for me?” question.
  • Be representative of the workforce.
  • Introduce discount membership rates.
  • Provide an “instant breakdown cover” model of help for workers with pre-existing problems.
  • Reach out to the workforce of the future.
  • Invest in technology to reach hard-to-reach workers.
  • Establish career development centres.
  • Make the most of available data.
  • Set standards across multiple workplaces.
  • Collaborate to increase bargaining power.
  • Build a new partnership with government and business

Each of these points need to address one or more of five unavoidable barriers to union membership, picked up as a result of sampling exercises, including interviews with more than 1,300 workers and focus group with 18-35-year-olds.

Those five barriers are expressed in terms of “I would join a union if…..” statements, as follows:

  • …it could help me personally.
  • …membership was value for money.
  • …I had the right information.
  • …I had sufficient problems at work.

Inevitably, there is much here that has been widely published elsewhere – such as the decline in union membership and density since the late 1970s – but such historical context is an unavoidable prerequisite to understand what follows, and it is a good resume.

The quotes and images from interviews and focus groups are also revealing. The concept of union membership being a “guardian angel” at work is powerful. And activists of a certain age need to know what make union membership “dope”, or beneficial. Certainly the fresh research showing higher-than-expected understanding of unions is a plus point – but note the caveats set out in the footnotes.

We need also to recognise the importance of the Fabians’ involvement. A formal link with this part of the Labour family is valuable on both sides, but cannot automatically be taken for granted.

The pamphlet also begs some significant questions – is an “instant breakdown” service going to work if cost is a major deterrent to membership? Are “career development centres” going to work if most potential membership is in high-churn sectors? And therefore do we need to look at providing centres to get people into work, per se?

If all interviews were carried out in workplaces, and focus groups were deliberately populated by social classes C1,C2, and D, are we not missing out on big demographic groups from whom we need to hear? 

And in order to talk to those potential members, we first need to find them. It is also correct to identify the need for “unprecedented levels of collaboration” but we have a long way to go to make that a reality, even though unions usually work well together at a local level.   

Arguably, the above observations are matters of detail when the pamphlet presents a “big picture” approach. And the big picture needs re-drawing, and populating with new ideas: unions reaching out better to non-members, being as relevant in their communities as they are in workplaces, delivering a shared agenda with employers, redeveloping sector-level bargaining. We can never say it enough.

For me, there is also a crucial next chapter, absent from this report: where are the results of past efforts to address these points? For example, what have been the outcomes of very recent discounted membership drives? Does accreditation in the form of a “kite mark” actually work? Above all, are we able to agree on what success looks like? How well have we disseminated best practice?  

Strangely, I found one of the most interesting areas for examination not in the report  but as part of the press release that accompanied it – Community general secretary Roy Rickhuss speaking of his union’s emphasis on recruiting in the self-employed sector “soon to be bigger than the public sector”and their “Indycube” project aimed at addressing the needs of workers there. That is probably the basis for a whole pamphlet on its own.

Overall this was a good contribution to the debate. Yes, many of the ideas have surfaced before, but the importance of concerted action to arrest and reverse declining membership levels can never be over-stated or repeated too much. And this is an existential crisis partly of our own making.

Simon Sapper is a former trade union national officer.

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