Friday, April 10, 2015

Trade unions and the failure of the "Millennium Challenge"

Sixteen years ago, in anticipation of the introduction of statutory union recognition by the then New Labour Government, then TUC General Secretary, John Monks,‎ set the movement his "millennium challenge" to increase membership by a million in five years.

‎In fact, figures from the Certification Officer suggest that there was a loss of half a million members over those five years and, although membership has fluctuated somewhat since it has continued to decline.

We have failed, and continue to fail, the "millennium challenge." There are a number of reasons for this failure - and some are to do with flaws in John Monks' original thesis. He seemed to believe, for example, that there were opportunities for membership growth through "partnership agreements" with employers (a proposition for which there is a dearth of empirical evidence).

As for statutory recognition, I don't know whether this has had little impact or has helped to avert what would otherwise have been even swifter decline - and that is a matter for another blog post.‎ I was reminded this week of the "millennium challenge" because of another part of Monks' appeal to our movement - to rationalise our structure through mergers having some industrial logic.

‎The current structure of the UK trade union movement has arisen from the application of successive waves of mergers to a structure originally consisting of craft, general and industrial unions. Occasionally mergers (such as the creation of UNISON) have brought together workers in particular sectors in a way which at least looks like it might strengthen our bargaining position - but as often mergers (and "transfers of engagements") driven by membership decline have led to the growth of vast general unions (the GPMU was briefly an industrial union for the printing industry before disappearing into AMICUS, now UNITE).

Of course, some of the evolving structure of the union movement reflects the changing structure of the economy - there probably is no longer a "print industry" to sustain an industrial union. Similarly, the once mighty Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, now lives on as part of the small "Community" union (while the National Union of Mineworkers is now smaller than some UNISON branches).

However, even where "industries" still exist as sectors where different unions could be brought together, this outcome has been persistently out of reach. Merger talks between the RMT and TSSA proved fruitless, leaving transport - like teaching - with three unions where it appears that one might do.

Teacher trade unionists - whom John Monks made an explicit target of his "challenge" all those years a go - have at least kept up a dialogue about "professional unity"‎ - and the latest hint of the possibility of a material outcome from this dialogue has come in the form of close working between the NUT and ATL.

Unfortunately - because the ATL compete with UNISON (and the GMB) to recruit and organise teaching assistants, the possibility that ATL and the NUT might take steps towards the unity of teachers is being seen as a potential threat by national officials of UNISON.

Each individual trade union seems so wrapped up in its own survival (with representation of members' interests seemingly a means to the end of recruitment, retention and financial stability) that even the attenuated imagination of a John Monks is beyond our current leadership.

No one could accuse the trade union movement of being a meritocracy, but we clearly need a change of direction at the top.‎ I think a vote for the "reclaim the union" candidates in the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC) elections is worth a try (see the elections page of this blog or

Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network.

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