Labour’s Gain Shows Unions’ Pain – But Change Is Coming

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(TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady with public sector workers. Credit: Carl Court, Getty Images)

The Labour Party membership booms to over 600,000 with mostly young new members. In the same year trade union membership falls by a 20-year “high” of 275,000.   Many at the TUC Congress have been asking how the appetite for social action reflected in the Labour Party’s success can map across to the union movement. Indeed, Congress adopted the impressively ambitious Motion 72 which mandates reorientation of the organisation to achieve just this outcome.

The challenge, or opportunity, was re-emphasised by Jeremy Corbyn’s planned remarks to Congress on Tuesday afternoon – don’t rely on a labour government to deliver all that you want. You have to organise to do it yourselves (I paraphrase, but not by much).

Well steady on now.  It’s just not that simple. At one fringe meeting I attended, a member of the audience said “I know what we need to do to increase membership – bring back the closed shop.” Now I’m not sure if he was serious, but there was no smile on his face. And that just shows the age-old problem – fundamental change requires progressives to have power, but to obtain that power, the change has to happen first.

There’s no surprise as to why the union movement hasn’t benefitted from the upsurge in youth activism and interest experienced by the Labour Party; Young workers (18-24 year olds) make up 14% of the workforce – but less than 5% of union membership.  That’s because they work disproportionately in hard-to-organise workplaces and industries with entrenched non-membership issues

TUC sponsored research  showed that as well as an absence of a union presence, young workers predominantly feel disempowered and isolated at work, and that attempts to change that are felt to be futile.  Yet when there is a real focus by unions on challenging unfair working practices, there can be welcome successes – the Ritzy Cinema workers (BECTU), Sports Direct (Unite) and McDonalds (Bakers’ Union) are three examples.

But the fact that these examples are so note-worthy only shows the scale of the problem. So what needs to happen? Here’s my five point plan.

  • An effective national centre. Union density is down to 25% in the economy a whole, and way way lower than that in the private sector. Workers covered by collective, union—backed agreement   is not that much higher (29%).  Yet the UK trade union structure has been more or less the same since the late 1940s’ Balkanisation (or carve-up) of interests.  It’s clearly not working so, as that Congress motion directed, it has to change. We can’t afford duplication or turf wars, and only an effective properly-resourced national trade union centre, working closely with solution-orientated affiliates, can co-ordinate, prioritise and direct resources effectively.
  • What do we look like? Despite the growing momentum behind the drive to ensure we look like our members and not a fiefdom of old, white men, do we look like a movement? And do we look like a movement people want to part of?  If “like recruits like” then we better get younger, female, BME spokespeople. Fast.
  • How do we communicate? Not well enough seems to be the unavoidable answer. It’s not all bad, of course, but there is still a tendency to think that if we say the same thing but louder, the message will eventually get through.  It won’t. To quote Owen Jones “it’s not that they’re selling it badly – people don’t like what’s being offered”.  He was talking about the Conservative Party in the election, but he might as well have been assessing our own shortcomings too. So what communications tool does everyone, I mean everyone have? Yep – you’ve got it.  So do we routinely make sure our comms are smartphone-friendly?  Do we use the social media channels that are most frequented by our target recruitment audience?  We’re getting there, but not quickly enough.
  • How to we counter this sense of futility and isolation? How can we increase levels of awareness, literacy and confidence? Going into workplaces, connecting with people is undeniably powerful stuff – but we need to achieve the same effect on an industrial scale.   The way CWU co-ordinated 700 “gate” meetings earlier this week is a model to be admired, and replicated.  So too is the impressive  work  by Co-Worker in the US,  who have  effectively linked up small, disparate workplaces and achieved real improvements in  working    They can’t come over here quick enough!
  • A finally – a platform of rights. A new deal for working people, if you like. So we can all rally to one flag, sing from the same hymn sheet.  Developing the new deal will increase trust and generate fresh thinking.  Adopting the policy will have the organising and media potential. Pursuing it will create a virtuous cycle of energy and enthusiasm.

Tim Roache of the GMB summed it up well. “We no longer look like the members we need to recruit. And more of the same is not an option. It isn’t “one more heave””. He’s right.  We need to be different.  We need to be daring. We need to be brave. Frankly, what’s the alternative? What’s left to lose?

This article also appears in The Huffington Post

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