Congress 2012: Organising in the private sector
I would consider myself to be both an optimist and a realist. So whilst I am proud to be part of what is still the largest (and best) voluntary movement in the UK, I’m also concerned about our future.
When I started work, the TUC represented just over 11 million trade union members – 5 million more than it does currently. Whilst it can be unhelpful and uninformative to focus on numbers in isolation from the economic context, it is frightening to contemplate just how close we may now be to dipping below critical mass.
Indeed, the reality in some parts of the private sector is that this has already happened.
Opinion research commissioned by Unions 21 showed that unions are no longer an automatic port of call for most workers: Those in the private sector are more likely to seek advice from a Citizen’s Advice Bureau or law centre; from friends or colleagues; to go to a solicitor or look on the Internet than they are to contact a union or the TUC.
Many young workers still enter employment, perhaps naively, expecting to progress in their career and thinking that problems at work happen to other people. They are more interested in participating in activities that support their aspirations than in issues that unions often emphasise.
Many simply don’t understand the language that we have all assimilated over the years – of composite motions and debates on remission – and often don’t have the patience or inclination to learn it. The communications gap is not just about technology, but is neatly encapsulated in a comment from one young worker who perceived trade union members to be ‘people who wear brown shirts and go on caravan holidays’ – in other words not like her.
So there are some significant challenges to demonstrate that collective voice is most effectively exercised through the union route, though it would appear that these stem more from ignorance or indifference than hostility.
Trade union values are inclusive and solidaristic. These stand in stark contrast to the Coalition’s tribal politics, and there is a rising tide that recognises the urgent need for a fairer approach. This is an opportunity that unions must seize – recognising that there is no simple or singular narrative about the world of work.
Whilst there is still much to be done to improve membership density in recognised workplaces, a key part of the challenge we face is to extend union membership and influence across the private sector. This will demand innovative as well as traditional approaches and it requires a TUC-wide response.
Motion 6, proposed by Prospect and supported by Unite, USDAW, Community and the Society of Radiographers, addresses this challenge and promoted an interesting debate. But it should be judged on what changes result.
As a former General Secretary once said, ours is a ‘movement not a monument’. Now is the time to prove him right.