Wednesday, November 16, 2016
UNISON and the future of our trade union movement?
It was good to catch up with old friends and colleagues today at the UNISON Centre (a.k.a. “the Great White Elephant of the Euston Road”) for a meeting of the Development and Organisation (D&O) Committee of the UNISON National Executive Council (NEC). It’s always good to catch up, and to see people I haven’t seen for a while.
I’ll blog a full report when I can find some time away from both branch work and self-inflicted labour. However, I do want to pass comment on some interesting contributions to discussion (in the context of debate about our organisation in schools) arising from the potential merger between the NUT and ATL unions.
This step towards professional unity in the most highly unionised large occupational group in the economy is arguably a belated response to the “millennium challenge” set to our movement by the TUC before the turn of the century, which did not generate the positive changes in the structure of our movement which it sought.
It is a shame that, given the current structure of our trade union movement, and the fact that (without national recognition to negotiate for non-teaching staff in schools where those staff are covered by the National Joint Council) the ATL organise teaching assistants, the move to bring together unionised teachers appears as a threat to UNISON, currently fighting for teaching assistants in Derby and Durham.
It is ironic that the position of the three support staff unions in schools (UNISON, GMB and UNITE), which is that the teaching unions ought not to try to recruit non-teaching staff in schools, is the exact opposite of our approach in the rest of local government (where, since adopting single status in 1997, we advocate vertically integrated trade unions organising all grades).
However, we are where we are. Trade unionists in our public services are organised in professional (or occupationally specific) unions (such as the teaching unions, NAPO, the FBU, the POA and some of the health unions), general unions (GMB and UNITE), an industrial union for the civil service (PCS) and – most importantly – in our strange hybrid trade union, which clearly aspires to be an industrial union in local government, health and higher education but (as some Committee members have conceded in recent discussions) is evolving in the direction of a general union.
There are very few public servants for whom there is only one obvious trade union to join (a firefighter perhaps). For most of us there are two or more trade unions who would happily take our subscriptions. Since it is much easier to recruit to a trade union someone who has already been persuaded of the benefits of trade unionism, this sets our public services up for an endless cycle of poaching of members between our unions.
In another part of our discussions today we touched upon the occasionally aggressive poaching of UNISON members by the GMB at local level – and were reminded that attempts to develop a protocol to encourage cooperation between the two unions was knocked back some years ago. The often difficult, and yet important, relationship between UNISON and GMB has been a feature of my years as a branch activist and on our NEC. The most likely future of this relationship is, regrettably, that cordial relations at national level will be accompanied by backbiting and mutual poaching locally. To change this would require leadership which neither union currently appears to possess.
Another trade union with which UNISON has had a difficult relationship during my time on the NEC in spite of the obvious potential for cooperation has been PCS. UNISON and PCS had signed an agreement to work together in 2010 but five years later PCS were complaining to the TUC about UNISON trying to encroach upon their areas of organisation. There is less direct competition for members between us and obvious possibilities for joint work between the civil service and other public services, but UNISON’s evident hostility has in the past driven PCS towards the possibility of a merger with far less industrial logic.
Overall trade union density has fallen over the past twenty years from a third to a quarter of all workers in the economy – even in the public sector almost half of workers are not trade unionists. What workers (whether or not yet in a trade union) need from our movement is a serious attempt to organise the unorganised – not a movement that is squabbling over the already organised minority.
We might look to the TUC to provide some unity- but the TUC has historically been weak in relation to individual trade unions and, as there are fewer, larger unions so this relative weakness becomes more pronounced. The best chance for our movement to make a unified attempt to organise (rather than a competitive attempt to avoid bankruptcy) would be if the leadership of UNISON could lead that unified attempt.
This was surely what we had in mind when we created a new public service union from the former partner unions (NALGO, NUPE and COHSE) back in 1993. We thought we could overcome one of the greatest rivalries in our movement (between NALGO and NUPE in local government) – although perhaps all we did was internalise it (as a struggle between democrats and control freaks).
At any event we did not think that we had finished the job of uniting public service workers on 1 July 1993 and yet we have hardly taken a step further.
Even the most enthusiastic (if anonymous) well-wisher on our union’s twentieth birthday could say nothing more positive than “steady as she goes”. This was not something to celebrate in circumstances in which we needed (as we still need) imaginative leadership committed to changing to meet the challenges of our future.
Trade union merger is not necessarily a positive step in meeting those challenges (many mergers appear purely defensive and financially driven) - although mergers which strengthen the organisational capacity of workers to resist employers have played and could in future play a positive role.
We may need to look closely at other means of cooperation between trade unions (such as the shared legal service between the GMB and CWU) as options for a future in which we can put such cooperation ahead of competition.
Instead of responding to the prospect of professional unity for the teaching profession by circling our wagons with “competitor” support staff unions and the recalcitrant teaching union we could then be approaching the teachers with a plan for effective cooperation between trade unions across the education sector (and all public services).
Our movement deserves a leadership which can address the challenges we face. UNISON in particular cannot continue in stasis.