Widening the debate on Trade Union membership
Thanks to Becky for her analysis of the 2011 trade union membership figures released by BIS last week.
Given the huge labour market turmoil we’ve experienced in 2011, I’m immediately struck by the remarkable stability in the key indicators relating to total union membership and density compared with 2010. Of course, there’s no denying the current Government policies have created a more challenging environment. But they have also created opportunities for us to make our case for fair treatment and, perhaps for some, the first realisation of why they need a union.
We certainly haven’t seen the private sector areas that Prospect represents expand to take up the slack of public sector job losses – so I’ve no doubt that the overall membership increase of 43,000 has been hard won. However, my own view is that we need to focus attention on the bigger challenges posed by the 16.9% bargaining coverage, rather than the 0.1% marginal decline in density.
All of the evidence I’ve seen suggests that we need to do more to demonstrate relevance and value, particularly to younger workers and those in the private sector. I’d like to suggest 5 ideas for wider debate.
- Strongly promote the case for good economic growth across the UK, based on high quality employment with decent terms and conditions and opportunities for progression. There is common ground to be made here with decent employers and service users.
- Demonstrate that unions are the best way to deliver fairness at work and that collective bargaining underpins fair treatment. There is a perception that it is dominated by those with the loudest voices or who know best how to get issues on the union agenda. However much we may disagree with this view, it needs to be rigorously addressed.
- Show that there are individual benefits too. For example, the paring back of employment rights and proposed fees regime for Employment Tribunals make all new starters much more vulnerable, and few will be able to afford to fund legal processes for themselves.
- Emphasise that unions are for people who want to get on at work and that joining in with union activities can support career aspirations, for instance through development of transferable skills and access to a range of experiences that would not be available in day-to-day employment.
- Make it easier for people to join and get involved gradually. The plain fact is that many private sector workers simply have no knowledge or experience of unions. There are some interesting initiatives from the US and New Zealand facilitating support for community campaigning as a precursor to full membership. Whilst such an approaches may not provide an easy answer, we cannot ignore the need to find alternative routes to membership.
There is one further point to consider, and that’s about the language we use to communicate and who does it for us. On 30 November last year, union views were very ably and powerfully articulated by a range of activists – young and old, women and men, white and BME. We all accept that ‘like recruits like’ but perhaps we don’t always do enough to publicly demonstrate our diversity.