Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Coronation or Election - the case of Recruitment

For those following my health (Sid and Doris Mabledon-Umbrella) I am pleased to report eating some toast and feeling strong enough to edit and post something I had drafted before falling ill a few days ago...

As our General Secretary has decided to submit himself for re-election it seems a good time to start assessing the performance of our leadership over recent years against our main objectives.

In this way it is possible to assess objectively whether Bob Oram's implicit call for a coronation rather than an election (casting our Deputy General Secretary perhaps in the role of Archbishop of Canterbury anointing the one true candidate once more to serve a grateful Union) has a merit which outweighs the democratic principles upon which our trade union was founded.

The first of our objectives relates to organisation and recruitment - and one of the easier ways to measure this (though not necessarily the most important) - is UNISON membership.

Trade union membership figures may generally be as much art as science but the quality of reporting on recruitment in particular has improved in my time on our NEC and from this I can generally vouch for the veracity of the following.

According to our last Annual Report membership stood at 1,315,000 although we affiliate to the TUC at the level of 1,343,000 which corresponds with our last published submission to the Government Certification Officer (and is 42,000 (3.2%) higher than the figure four submitted to the Certification Officer four years previously).

So UNISON’s membership has grown under our present General Secretary, but we have done this in a growing pool of public sector employment, so that our density (the proportion of the workforce which we have in membership) and therefore our bargaining power has been in decline.

Public sector union density fell from 60.3% in the fourth quarter of 2000 to 57.1% in the fourth quarter of 2008 (official stats online here). UNISON remains a trade union with nearly 90% of our membership in the public sector so that gives us some sort of benchmark – but it is hardly a good one.

The breakdown of union density by industrial sector (which overlaps private and public sectors and across which UNISON straddles several of the industrial sectors) has been as follows over the same time period;
Electricity, Gas and Water Supply from 57.2% to 41.7%
Public Administration and Defence from 59.3% to 55.8%
Health and Social Work from 46.9% to 40.7%
Education is an exception increasing (albeit barely) from 53.9% to 54.1% (but this figure is obviously influenced by the relatively high level of unionisation of teachers and the figure from this source cannot be disaggregated).

Although the Union (wrongly in my view) refuses to publish the more detailed density data which we have this bears out the contention that our density in many areas is appallingly low. Since most of our members pay their subscriptions by deduction from salary (by arrangement with the employers) the employers already know this information and there is nothing to be lost by sharing it honestly and openly with our activists and members.

In very many areas of local government for example our density is below 50% (indeed the average across Greater London is below 50% on the employers’ internal figures produced for their own use).

Although the spectre of derecognition probably haunts no more than a few home counties saloon bars where Tory Councillors do not actually understand how their authorities manage their resources, these density figures will be a hurdle to be surmounted in organising fights in defence of jobs, pensions and conditions of service over the next few years.

The situation in health is hardly better and there too the Tories will quite probably soon be in charge.

There have been some positive initiatives from UNISON in the last couple of years, including the dramatic success of online recruitment and the appointment of local and area organisers to assist branches.

Though both these developments were a long time in coming they are most welcome and need to be built upon.

They both also show that the Union, at its best, is a collective entity, a team of lay activists and paid officials working together to build a stronger union for the benefit of working people.

We don’t of course stand or fall by the one woman or man we put up to be our General Secretary, but leadership is not unimportant. In trade union elections, incumbents usually win, because they are known and because they have more power and influence than challengers, but incumbents also have a record by which they can be judged.

The questions which supporters of Dave Prentis have to answer (should they fail to achieve the coronation called for by Bob Oram) are these;

How can an administration which could not reverse declining density in the relatively benign environment of the past few years convince us that it can drive up union density moving into a harsher political and financial climate?

Is the leadership that could not build the union’s strength in a time of relative peace the right leadership to try to do so in the time of coming war?

One thing we should do more of is celebrate and learn from success – such as the Kirklees branch which has density in its main employer (the local authority) above 80%. This is a level of membership density most of us who are UNISON Branch Secretaries would kill for yet – even though the Secretary of the local branch, Paul Holmes, serves on our National Executive Council, there is little effort by the Union generally to spread the word about the methods whereby the Kirklees branch sustains this strong position.

Why is that?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I assume that if what you are saying is Dave Prentis should not be GS because he failed to improve recruitment of new members the same would apply to you (on a micro level) in your own branch? And there are two of you after all? How many more members have you recruited in your branch during your 50 years there?? Thought so...