Reaching out to the never members
The state of membership in the private sector, as revealed in the latest Trade Union membership statistics released earlier this year demands a new and innovative approach to how unions reach out to the majority of workers who aren’t in a union.
There’s an adage that says unionised sectors of the economy can’t remain islands of decent pay and conditions in a sea of declining standards. If we wanted proof that this is true then we need only look at the way in which the paucity of decent occupational pension schemes in the overwhelmingly non-unionised private sector has been used to undermine public service pension provision.
The scale of this challenge is significant. Density in the private sector is now just 14% – barely 1 in 7 private sector workers now belong to a union. Unions are present in less than a third of private sector workplaces and less than one fifth of private sector employees are covered by collective agreements. Since 2000 density in the private sector has fallen by 3.7% and membership by 840,000. And since the late 90s the number of workers who have never been members of a union has steady increased. Now, over half of all employees have never been in a union and in the private sector, three fifths of employees have never held a union card.
This is not to dismiss the efforts made by a number of unions in attempting to organise in the private sector but we have to be realistic and accept that the scale of the challenges means that we aren’t going to organise every workplace in the traditional way in enough time (the average size of a bargaining unit as reported by the CAC in 2010 was just 87 almost half the figure recorded in 2006). Nor is there any evidence that large numbers of workers going to spontaneously organise themselves.
If we accept that union membership, in marketing terminology, is an ‘experience good’ i.e. only by being part of a union does a person fully realise and appreciate the benefits of membership, part of any new approach to reaching out must involve thinking about how we can give more workers an opportunity to experience the benefits of union membership.
In thinking about how we set about this, the TUC and unions in the UK might look at an initiative launched recently by the New Zealand CTU. ‘Together’ is a new organisation established and run by the unions affiliated to the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions which aims to connect workers in non-unionised work places with the union movement and the union experience. Membership, which costs just NZ$1 per week, gives employees and contractors in workplaces and sectors without union support, access to help and expert advice.
What makes the CTU ‘Together’ initiative interesting is firstly the way in which it is in-part targeted at existing union members and encourages them to sign up members of their family and their close friends (this is based on surveys of union members that found high levels of concern about how their family members and friends were treated at work) and secondly the way it is used to join members together and with union campaigns. The pitch to workers is the offer of support and advice via a dedicated website and call centre and information on and access to union campaigns. The income is used to fund both the support that ‘Together’ members receive and new organising initiatives.
‘Together’ is explicitly not a substitute for union membership (you can’t, for example, join together if a union is already recognised or running a campaign in your workplace – it’s a way for ‘never’ members to connect with the wider union family.
Some may say that workers know where we are if they want to join us but the fact is that actually lots of workers don’t even know WHAT we are let alone WHERE we are. Others may say that the New Zealand initiative sounds like a return to the false promise of credit card trade unionism, but I think that we have learnt enough about the limits of that approach in the 80’s and 90’s not to repeat it. If we are smart we can use this and other new forms of engagement with a whole new group of workers to inform our organising priorities and add to the campaigning work that we do. Finally, such an initiative would only be really worthwhile if it worked alongside, not in place of, traditional workplace organising.
And there’s evidence showing that we can find a way of making union membership more easily available to the millions who don’t currently have it, there’s a receptive audience waiting to hear from us. Polling work for the TUC has shown that unions retain broad support from the British public – with 60% of the public agreeing that ‘unions provide vital protection for many groups of workers’ and in 2005 over 40% of workers in non-unionised workplaces said that if asked they would be likely to join a union.
A continued decline in membership and density in the private sector, particularly should it fall below 10%, will not only give our enemies a reason to question our legitimacy as voice for working people in the private sector, where most people in the UK work, but will increase the pressure on the terms and conditions of workers in unionised sectors of the economy. It’s in the long term interests of both unions and workers this is not allowed to happen.
This article also appears in the latest edition of ‘ForeFront’ the journal of Unions 21