Unions ‘need to be visible in the community as well as the workplace’

Leading researcher and analyst Jane Holgate from the University of Leeds considers ‘where next’ for union organising in 2013?
by - 2nd January 2013, 8.15 GMT

Since the election of the Coalition government many workers have experienced job loss and many more have experienced attacks on their terms and conditions of employment.

(Pictured: trade union, community and women’s rights activists on International Women’s Day march, Liverpool, February 2012)

At the same time, we have heard government ministers, time and time again, making announcements about their plans to roll back or abolish hard fought employment protection measures, from changes to the employment tribunal system to the most recent announcement on the reduction of the consultation period for redundancy.

This combination of economic crisis and a right wing neoliberal government has provided unions with a particularly difficult climate in which to defend their members and, more generally, all workers.

But unions are used to difficult challenges.

Over the last decade or so, we have seen the UK movement turn its attention to organising – to look for ‘new’ ways in which to rebuild itself and draw in new groups of workers.

The TUC’s Organising Academy, set up in 1998, helped to push the debate on the development of new organising strategies and the need for cultural change within unions if they were to respond to decades of union decline.

The end of the year often provides time for reflection and now is perhaps the time to consider ‘where next’ for union organising?

With less than a third of UK workers now members of trade unions there are some real challenges ahead and one of these is how to reach out to different groups of workers, such as migrants, agency workers or those in ‘non-traditional’ forms of employment.

We have seen some very interesting and effective campaigning and organising around living wage campaigns over the last few years based on a community organising approach, but in a number of cases this has taken place outside of the union movement.

However, the TUC and a number of unions are giving much greater consideration to community-based organising approaches recognising that unions need to be visible in the community as well as the workplace.

I predict that in 2013 we will see much more activity in this area as unions begin to learn and develop the community organising approaches that were once so central to trade unionism in the UK when it first began its development.