Sunday, June 08, 2008

How do we grow the Union?

Wednesday's meeting of UNISON's National Executive Council (NEC) received an impassioned report from our Head of Recruitment, which prompted what was the best and most interesting debate on recruitment which the NEC has had in the five years I have been representing you. I tend to agree with my fellow NEC member from the Eastern Region, Pete Gaskin, who expressed the view that the NEC Development and Organisation Committee is not functioning effectively as it has not had a debate of the quality and seriousness about recruitment in the recent past.

UNISON has gained members over the past ten years whilst much of the movement has stagnated or lost members and – given that we need to recruit about 140,000 members nationally every year in order to stand still in membership terms, there are no grounds for despair or despondency. Equally however there are no grounds for complacency.

With overall union density below 50% in many public sector employers and the likely prospect of a Tory Government in the next couple of years we could face new challenges, including threats of derecognition and legal bans on strike action by public servants – to meet these challenges we need now to enthuse our activists to prioritise recruitment of members. Indeed as our General Secretary Dave Prentis pointed out, we don’t need to wait for the next General Election to get on with recruiting and raising union density.

Paul Holmes, nationally elected NEC member representing local government, made the most important contribution to the debate, speaking from the perspective of the Kirklees branch who have 86% membership density in their lead employer.

No London branch comes near that level of trade union organisation – and whilst the geographical differences in trade union history and consciousness may mean that we cannot attain that level of union density it does at least give us a target to aim for.

What encouraged me about the debate at the NEC was that some of the participants were actually listening to each other and getting beyond the sterile argument between those who see recruitment in terms of the union being active on issues (such as pay) and those who emphasise the importance of enthusiastic engagement by activists in recruitment as an end in itself. For those who will be at Conference there will be opportunities to find out more from the Unizone.

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