Up and down the country, UNISON's thousand plus employees (and we tens of thousands of lay activists) are being encouraged to gear up for a big push to recruit non-members (particularly "free riders" in our unionised "core employers"). This work is to take centre stage for at least a couple of weeks in March.
It is important to note that we have no empirical evidence whatsoever that such a voluntarist drive to recruit, independent of and unrelated to any specific, concrete issue or dispute, will deliver the goods. We have done this before (around the last tv advertising campaign) and, for the effort involved, the return in terms of recruitment was minimal.
The evidence which we have is of massive national surges in recruitment to our union occuring around major national disputes, when potential members could see our union being used properly by our members to mobilise our collective strength.
This explains the hidden history of the recruitment drive, which is that it is plainly a replacement for the stillborn strategy of building a national fight over pay.
If we are indeed giving up on the coordinated fight over pay, for which UNISON persuaded the TUC to call last year, then the least that can be said is that we are doing so prematurely.
The notion that pay freezes will "always" be smashed by industrial action is not persuasive in a twenty first century world in which 2012 saw barely a quarter of a million working days lost through strike action (and where across the economy fewer than 30% of workers are unionised).
However, recognition that our earlier position may have been a little gung ho does not require us to practice a complete "volte face" and to give up on fighting over pay at a national level. Certainly a national pay dispute in local government would be the best context to resist authorities seeking to break away from national pay bargaining.
A subsidiary benefit of a pay fight would be a boost to recruitment, and growth for the union as occured during the pensions dispute. (Unfortunately the outcome of the pensions dispute is an important element of the reason why such a fight is currently unlikely).
It is because such a pay fight is increasingly less likely that the "official" effort which would have gone into such a fight is now to be diverted into the barren channel of a "free-standing" recruitment drive.
Trade union recruitment "as an end in itself" is not a priority for most union members. For those of us who are lay members, the trade union is a tool to defend our interests not the goal of all our efforts.
However, all socialists in the movement share the aspiration to grow the union because it will make us - at least potentially - more powerful and effective.
I just think, if it's going to work this recruitment drive needs to have been situated alongside one or more real disputes or issues.
I hope I'm wrong and will participate loyally in the recruitment drive. I just think it would better if it were linked to our members' interests.
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