Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Could strike action help our unions grow?

Having stepped down from my various UNISON roles a couple of months ago, I have more time to think and read. I am, of course, still interested in trade unionism (and am still a public sector trade unionists).

In a couple of recent blog posts I have commented upon trade union decline - but what do I think trade unions should be doing in order to grow? Well, in this blog post I will address just one answer to that question.

I commend this research from the British Journal of Industrial Relations (Does Strike Action Stimulate Trade Union Membership Growth? by Andy Hodder, Mark Williams, John Kelly and Nick McCarthy) which reports on detailed research on data held by the civil service union, PCS.

The answer, not surprisingly, is a qualified “yes”; “Overall, our data suggest there is a strong and robust link between strikes and union membership: months in which a union organizes strike action show significantly higher rates of gross and net recruitment compared to nonstrike months”.

This doesn’t just ring true – it rings loud and clear. Having served on UNISON’s Development and Organisation Committee for fourteen years until this June, I have read and discussed more than fifty quarterly membership reports – time and again I saw that spikes in recruitment to UNISON were associated with campaigns of national strike action.

Interestingly the research also demonstrates that strike action which is suspended (or called off) doesn’t produce a positive impact upon recruitment. Potential trade unionists are attracted to trade unions when our unions show themselves as acting in the interests of members and potential members.

For years I heard right-wingers in the union try to deny the compelling evidence of our own statistics in order to decry an argument in favour of a fighting trade union, whilst (some) national officials desperately tried to convince themselves that advertising campaigns could grow the union.

The paper by Hodder et al is no easy read, but those who aspire to lead and organise national trade unions should make the effort to read it. The rigorous analysis of evidence demonstrates that trade unions grow when they fight for their members and potential members.

Of course there are other factors which influence trade union membership numbers - and the decline in membership of PCS attributable to mass redundancies and a politically motivated attack upon the "check-off" system for paying subscriptions from salaries may well demonstrate that if one union is not supported by others when under attack from a hostile Government any positive impact on its growth from its willingness to fight may be swamped by the negative impact of political revenge.

What might have happened if PCS had not been abandoned by its sister trade unions is a whole other question.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course you are not saying that unions should go on strike to stimulate membership growth are you ?
What is clear in the article,and thank-you for drawing attention to it in your blog,is that the Duke of York approach (marching members up to the top of the hill and then back down again) is amongst the worse things that can happen.
More research needs to be conducted re the retaining of membership because of strike action and not just recruiting.
The term "right-wing" in your blog is used as a term of abuse but many UNISON (the union I am a member of) members called right wing are not right wing if you examine the whole political spectrum. It is all relative.