Saturday, September 20, 2014

Trade union membership - running to stand still?

This week I attended a meeting of UNISON’s National Executive Council’s (NEC) Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee, at which we received information about recruitment into our trade union.

It’s not so much that we are running to stand still in terms of trade union membership in public services at the moment – it’s more like running up the down escalator.

UNISON’s clearer focus on recruitment is having an impact – and that’s not all. It’s not just that (across the whole Union) the recruitment in the three months from 1 March to 31 May 2013 (around the launch of the national recruitment drive) was 27% up on the corresponding three month period in 2012.

That same 27% increase in “joiners” (to use the correct internal terminology) is, coincidentally, seen when you compare the “joiner” numbers for England, Wales and Northern Ireland local government between 1 January and 31 August 2014, compared to a year previously.

The impact of a national pay dispute upon recruitment to the trade union can be fairly clearly seen in the current year’s figures. England, Wales and Northern Ireland (where we are in dispute and have taken strike action), where the figures exhibit this 27% increase. Contrast that with Scotland local government (where we are not yet taking action over pay). In Scotland there was a 4% decrease in joiners in the first eight months of 2014 compared to the corresponding period in the previous year.

I know that colleagues at the UNISON Centre intend to “drill down” into the data in order to look further at the differential recruitment experience between members involved in the pay dispute and those not involved (and that will be most interesting) but a crude assessment of the difference north and south of the border suggests that the 2014 pay dispute has brought a membership increment of perhaps 12,000 members thus far this year (the difference between the actual number of “joiners” in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the first eight months of this year and the number who would have joined had that number declined by the same percentage as it did in Scotland).

This compares with an incremental increase in recruitment of 8,400 (across the whole of Union) comparing the March to May period in 2013 with that of 2012 (and therefore arguably attributable in part to the recruitment drive). This probably shows that, in order to recruit in the current climate we need both a serious subjective focus upon recruitment and an issue-based approach in which the Union is taking up issues of concern to our members and potential members (or engaging in what we old-fashioned types still call “class struggle”).

In fact, we are recruiting well even when compared to the experience of the 2011 pensions dispute. Across UNISON as a whole, we recruited 13% more members in 2011 (when we were fighting for public sector pensions) than we had in the previous year. This impressive increase is dwarfed (proportionately) by the increase seen as result of the local government pay dispute this year (compared to last year).

The difference is that, whereas in 2011, that increase in recruitment meant that we were recruiting more members than were leaving the Union, the 27% increase in “joiners” in local government in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is more than matched by the similar 27% increase in the (larger) number of “leavers” in the same sector as members take redundancy or resign or retire from their jobs and are not replaced.

The increase in recruitment which is the fruit of our energetic approach and our correct focus upon members’ interests is not preventing an accelerating decline in membership in our core areas of organisation.

This is a serious crisis for our trade union.

UNISON needs to be led to inspire our activists to recruit members by fighting the Government and employers. The forthcoming General Secretary election needs to be used as an opportunity to engage our thousands of activists in a debate about how to achieve this.

People won’t keep running up the down escalator indefinitely without some such inspiration.

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