Unions have a real opportunity to give hope to our members and millions of others

by - 5th February 2013, 8.15 BST

Crowds at the 2012 Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival. Pic by Clint Randall www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

Crowds at the 2012 Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Festival. Pic by Clint Randall www.pixelprphotography.co.uk

A new dedication to organising can revitalise the trade union movement and make Britain a better place in which to live and work

The only thing different about the challenges that the trade union movement will face this year compared to last, is that they will be more acute.

With the majority of the cuts still to come, it is now clear (as if there was ever any doubt) that unreconstructed elements of the Conservative Party include the trade union movement, along with the NHS and the Welfare State, amongst the institutions that they intend to use the cover of coalition to dismantle.

The political right understands all too well the potential of the trade union movement to mount an effective opposition to its un-mandated programme of cuts, reform of public services and restrictions on employment rights.

Two huge demonstrations, successful days of action in the public sector, the dismantling by the TUC and unions of the government’s intellectual case for austerity and the existence of hundreds of union led campaign groups up and down the country prove this.

That’s why the right wing ultras in the Tory party take any and every opportunity to ramp up the anti union rhetoric.

The job of organising and representing union members – and the potential members of the future – is of course one undertaken directly by unions rather than the TUC. But the TUC does have a responsibility to use the space it works in as a result of not being involved in the day to day graft of negotiating with employers and representing members, to hold a mirror up to the movement, to set out the challenges we face and work with unions to develop innovative and effective ways in which we can build stronger unions.

In the current circumstances it’s understandable that a priority is placed on consolidation, representing, maintaning and increasing our membership in workplaces where unions are already recognised.

It’s encouraging that despite the industrial and political challenges that they face, a number of TUC affiliates – Unite, RMT and USDAW to name just a few – have increased membership either overall or in key sectors in the last year.

But it’s vital that unions continue to look beyond the existing islands of unionisation if over time we aren’t to be swept away by the rising tide of non-union Britain.

One of the most fundamental problems we face is that too few people have any real knowledge of unions and any lived experience of the benefits of working in a unionised workplace. Despite this, I believe there is a significant constituency amongst the UK workforce that would willingly join a union if only they knew more about our values and were given the opportunity to do so.

So we must think of ways to not only raise awareness of the values of unions and of the value of union membership, but to bring membership within the reach of the majority of the workforce. One way to do this would be for us look at the ‘Together’ initiative taken in New Zealand – where unions have pooled their resources to create a ‘gateway’ to union membership which allows those working in non-union workplaces to experience some of the benefits of being in a union.

An entry point membership would provide legal and employment rights advice, access to a limited number of union services and information, plus a chance to hear about and participate in union campaigns of interest and relevance to them. In return, our movement would get access to a potentially significant numbers of employees who we currently struggle to reach.

Whilst non-union Britain is diverse in terms of its demography, the crisis of membership is particularly acute amongst young workers; less than 9% of employees aged between 16 and 24 are members of a union.Whilst youth structures within trade unions have played a valuable role in encouraging activism amongst existing young members, they’re often under used as a way of promoting unions to the vast majority of young workers who aren’t members and don’t work where there is any union to join.

So, if there is a collective will to create an entry point into the movement we might start by making a specific offer to that group of workers who as well as being the least represented amongst union members are often amongst the most exploited members of the nation’s workforce.

As well as internal changes to the way we organise and recruit members, we also need to think of what it is we need from government to re-shape the environment in which we work. Aside from the economic and industrial challenges brought about by the financial crisis, the growth in short-term employment contracts, the increase in agency workers and other forms of ‘atypical employment’, have made it increasingly difficult for unions to organise.

The first term of the last Labour government saw the introduction of statutory recognition procedures, legal recognition of the role of Union Learning Representatives and the Information and Consultation Regulations. Whilst none of these measures, probably deliberately, gave unions a silver bullet that they could use to reverse the steep decline in union membership seen between 1979 and 1997, they did at the least create a more benign environment for unions to operate in.

 So, as the Labour Party policy review moves forward and the 2015 election comes into view, unions face an additional challenge of assembling a coherent set of policy demands that as well as improving the rights of workers, creates a more favourable environment within which to organise, increase recognition and improve employment standards across entire sectors and not just individual workplaces.

Unions can also use this process to give Labour the confidence to say what it knows to be true – that societies with high union density often have less inequality and more productive workplaces.

Using the opportunity of campaigns for greater equality, fairer pay, economic and workplace democracy, and a greener and more sustainable economy, unions have a chance to communicate our progressive values and in doing so give hope and cause not just to our existing members but to millions of others.

Under a new general secretary, who is at heart and by instinct an organiser and campaigner, the TUC, working with our affiliates and other organisations that share our values, has the opportunity to bring fresh thinking and renewed purpose to this task in the months and years ahead.

Carl Roper is the TUC’s national organiser