Sunday, September 10, 2017

Welcoming TUC delegates to Brighton - what about the workers?

Brighton is welcoming delegates to the annual Trades Union Congress, which convenes here this afternoon (read more here).

I hope that friends and comrades in the UNISON delegation (and other delegations) will take the opportunity to network between activists in different trade unions – because (from years of experience attending this particular event I can say) that is just about the only justification for the event.

Official policymaking between the official structures of our trade union movement has no relevance to everyday life in the workplace – the Congress which will meet at the Brighton Centre for the next few days is essentially the same body that voted to consider the practicalities of organising a General Strike against austerity.

Remember that?


If you look at the official statistics for strike action you see clearly that this century has seen a few peaks of action, each of which was associated with national strike action in the public sector (and generally local government).

These were our opportunities to mobilise trade union members in opposition to austerity. Each one of them was squandered. The leadership who squandered each of those opportunities is generally still in place. They were always weak.

Trade union membership and density are falling – and our movement was unable to prevent legislation which has made lawful large scale national strike action a virtual impossibility. Strike action remains at a historically low level.

The leadership of the trade unions will celebrate the outcome of this year’s General Election – although they contributed precious little to that outcome – because they want delegates from across our movement to whistle to keep their spirits up (rather than think about the crisis of our trade unions).

Any serious trade unionists who have managed to find their way into the sea of complacency and careerism that is the annual TUC beano should be sure to use these few days by the seaside to make links with other good activists across the movement. There is no other justification for the time off work.


Apart from that, we do have the best pubs in the country in Brighton…



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Will the TUC respond effectively to the crisis of our trade unions?

Those of us with an interest in our trade union movement may sometimes peruse the Final Agenda for the Annual Trades Union Congress when it is published. Having attended Congress on UNISON’s behalf on eight occasions I know that the annual Parliament of our trade unions could (just possibly) be a useful opportunity to build unity across the organisations of our class.

The agenda includes a wide range of motions addressing all manner of subjects and I don’t intend to summarise them all here. I am particularly interested, in view of the last few union-related posts on this blog, to see the motions which come under the sub-heading of “Stronger Unions” since this is certainly what workers need.

A couple are of particular interest.

Motion 72 from the Communications Workers Union (A new model of trade unionism) is, at least, pointing in the right direction;

“Congress recognises the growing challenges facing the trade union movement and is extremely concerned that 2016 saw a reported fall of 275,000 TU members with density reported at 23.3 per cent.
Congress agrees that to revolutionise the world of work, deliver a new deal for workers, ensure wider society benefits from the gig economy and to re-assert trade union values and organisation – the TUC and its affiliated unions must now lead a major transformative project to create a new model of UK trade unionism.
Congress agrees the TUC General Secretary will bring forward for agreement documentation to the Executive Committee and General Council on the overall shape, aims and objectives of the project by March 2018, including consideration of the following:
i.               how we significantly increase levels of engagement with members and representatives
ii.              how we strengthen local workplace activism
iii.            improving co-operation, methods and effectiveness of organising
iv.            a stronger focus for the TUC in co-ordinating solidarity and supporting workers in dispute
v.              the best model of trade unionism to influence the gig economy
vi.            bringing forward a younger generation of representatives and members
vii.           ensuring the whole movement better reflects the gender, ethnicity and diversity of the workforce
viii.         improving the scope and reach of collective and sectoral bargaining.
The project will build on and pull together existing relevant TUC work strands and review all TUC structures to strengthen the voice of smaller unions. The project will ensure the widest consultation with unions and seek the widest possible direct engagement with workers.”

On the other hand, Motion 71 from the National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers, though bearing the worthy title of “Valued Workers” and starting with a recognition of the challenges faces the movement as a whole is not, perhaps, all it seems;

“Congress deplores the attacks on the rights of working people, including the rights of workers who belong to a trade union.
Congress is deeply concerned that anti trade union legislation introduced by successive Conservative governments has created the conditions where:
i.               employers routinely deny the rights of workers with relative impunity
ii.              workers are increasingly exposed to poor quality, low-paid and precarious employment
iii.            workers’ fears of victimisation are a major barrier to trade union membership and participation in trade union activities
iv.            hostile employment practices are flourishing within non-unionised workplaces.
Congress commends the partnership between GMB, NASUWT, UNISON and Unite in campaigning to incentivise school and college employers to value teachers and support staff and their respective unions.
Congress reasserts its commitment to extending the reach of trade unions within workplaces and to support affiliates to prioritise:
a. recruiting into membership those workers who are not members of any union
b. dissuading unions from seeking to recruit workers who already are members of trade unions
c. encouraging unions to work co-operatively in the interests of building the future of the trade union movement and countering government attacks on workers’ rights.”

I have added the emphasis that shows that the real purpose of this motion is to signal a “circling of the wagons” by all the other unions with members in schools, who fear that the nascent New National Education Union (NEU) will prove a competitor for members in the most highly unionised sector of the economy.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with asserting that unions should not be seeking to “poach” each others’ members (although to see both UNISON and GMB mentioned in this regard in a motion which addresses the position of school support staff is, at the very least, ironic).

However, the contrast between the forward looking and realistic approach of Motion 72 from the CWU, which honestly faces up to the decline of our movement generally and how we should respond to it, and the defensiveness of Motion 71, which suggests that what we need is “more of the same”, is very clear.

There is no evidence in Motion 71 of thought having been given a creative response from other trade unions to the move towards professional unity between teaching trade unions.

Our trade unions – outside the education sector – are not, generally, growing (although fair play to the Society of Radiographers for pointing out – in an amendment to Motion 72 – that they are) and the status quo in terms of leadership and organisation plainly offers no realistic hope that they will.


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I won’t be at the TUC next month any more than the great majority of trade unionists will be, but we all need the positive and constructive approach suggested by the CWU to triumph over the conservatism implied by the motion from the NAS/UWT.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Could strike action help our unions grow?

Having stepped down from my various UNISON roles a couple of months ago, I have more time to think and read. I am, of course, still interested in trade unionism (and am still a public sector trade unionists).

In a couple of recent blog posts I have commented upon trade union decline - but what do I think trade unions should be doing in order to grow? Well, in this blog post I will address just one answer to that question.

I commend this research from the British Journal of Industrial Relations (Does Strike Action Stimulate Trade Union Membership Growth? by Andy Hodder, Mark Williams, John Kelly and Nick McCarthy) which reports on detailed research on data held by the civil service union, PCS.

The answer, not surprisingly, is a qualified “yes”; “Overall, our data suggest there is a strong and robust link between strikes and union membership: months in which a union organizes strike action show significantly higher rates of gross and net recruitment compared to nonstrike months”.

This doesn’t just ring true – it rings loud and clear. Having served on UNISON’s Development and Organisation Committee for fourteen years until this June, I have read and discussed more than fifty quarterly membership reports – time and again I saw that spikes in recruitment to UNISON were associated with campaigns of national strike action.

Interestingly the research also demonstrates that strike action which is suspended (or called off) doesn’t produce a positive impact upon recruitment. Potential trade unionists are attracted to trade unions when our unions show themselves as acting in the interests of members and potential members.

For years I heard right-wingers in the union try to deny the compelling evidence of our own statistics in order to decry an argument in favour of a fighting trade union, whilst (some) national officials desperately tried to convince themselves that advertising campaigns could grow the union.

The paper by Hodder et al is no easy read, but those who aspire to lead and organise national trade unions should make the effort to read it. The rigorous analysis of evidence demonstrates that trade unions grow when they fight for their members and potential members.


Of course there are other factors which influence trade union membership numbers - and the decline in membership of PCS attributable to mass redundancies and a politically motivated attack upon the "check-off" system for paying subscriptions from salaries may well demonstrate that if one union is not supported by others when under attack from a hostile Government any positive impact on its growth from its willingness to fight may be swamped by the negative impact of political revenge.

What might have happened if PCS had not been abandoned by its sister trade unions is a whole other question.