We all tend to adjust reality to suit our perceptions and expectations.
Some years ago an American friend of mine was staying in Spain. There was a knock on the door followed by “Hola!” My friend said to his partner “hey, there’s a Mexican at the door”. She tried to reassure him “Don’t worry honey, we’re in Spain”. He adjusted reality to suit his expectations, and said “I know. That’s why it’s so strange”.
For an individual adjusting reality can be amusing; for a movement it can be fatal.
In 1979 when Thatcher came to power there were around 13 million people in trade unions. By 1990 this figure had gone down to around 7 million. This wasn’t because Thatcher and her friends were beastly to trade unions, although there were well publicised examples of industrial confrontation. The reality was that many industries that had been the heartland of trade unionism went into decline and the working population became more concentrated in the service sector. Unions failed to follow workers into the new areas of employment. We didn’t adjust to the new industrial reality.
One consequence of this has been the concentration of trade union membership in the public sector. In 1995 there were around 300,000 more trade union members in the public sector, than there were in the private sector. By the end of 2011, the difference had grown to 1,375,000 more members in the public sector. Membership density in both the public and private sector fell over the same period, but there were nearly a million less members in the private sector.
Contrary to what you might have expected in 2011, membership in the private sector grew while membership in the public sector declined. The reality is that we are witnessing another industrial shift similar to that in the 1980’s. The government’s bankrupt austerity agenda is driving down employment in the public sector and increasing the amount of outsourcing. This is part of a wider fragmentation of the workforce, where schools are becoming academies and hospitals foundation trusts. They are intent on breaking up the large bargaining groups that have underpinned public sector trade unionism.
This time we can’t afford to be left on the back foot. Unions need to be more nimble in following members into these fragmented workplaces. That means targeting new employers. It means developing organising strategies that follow workers into the fragmented workforce. Face to face organising is the most effective way of recruiting new members. But we should also be aware that as the workforce becomes more fragmented traditional avenues of communication are becoming more stretched. There is a need to explore new methods of communication through social networking and mobile technology.
If we are going to be successful we need to make sure we are more welcoming to potential members and that we encourage more people to become active. Far too many union meetings are conducted solely for the benefit of the aficionados. Proceedings follow an arcane pattern, and are conducted in ‘unionspeak’, and focus on’ resolutionary’ trade unionism. Democratic processes are central to our movement. But meetings should also be open and welcoming. We need to make sure that new members feel welcome and valued at our meetings.