This is a guest posting by Mike Smith, Head of Secretariat for the TUC
It was fascinating to hear from Helen Kelly, President of the NZCTU, about what unions in New Zealand are doing to tackle problems that are both similar to those we face in the UK, but significantly different, both in terms of the size of country and areas of organisational strength.
The concept that was new to me, but perhaps familiar to many of the others taking part in the discussion, was that of the difference between unions, as membership organisations, and social movements that can be supported with varying degrees of involvement, short of membership.
Traditionally British unions have ridden both horses, acting as both the ‘voice of Britain at work,’ as we have frequently described the TUC, and speaking ‘on behalf of our members’ in the way the shop stewards regularly make representations to management, but increasingly our critics – from The Sun leader writers, to the tax payers alliance and the rabid right of the Tory backbenches, describe us as a “vested interest” – rooted in public services and speaking only for a section of workers that has better terms and conditions than the rest of the working population, wrong though that might be.
In order to counter this we need to be seen more widely as a social movement advocating fairness at work and workplace justice and opposing exploitation wherever it occurs.
The New Zealand answer has been to create ‘Together’ – through which they can bring into the trade union movement family and friends of members on a low fee basis and so create a social movement. For more information, you can see Simon Sapper’s blog posting here.
To date they appear to have had only limited success and for our part perhaps we need to look at other ways of turning passive support for our goals into a more active form, as the various environmental groups have done.
We could do this:
- by stepping up our efforts to show that we are the Voice of Britain at Work, but we do a lot of that work already, especially through the TUC, yet still remain vulnerable to counter-efforts by our opponents, especially when we have our highest profile for instance at times of strike action in the public services..
- We could consider establishing some new means by which people could sign up to our aims – creating a Campaign for Fairness and, Justice at Work but without formally joining a union. – a big organisational effort would be needed with strong union buy-in.
- acknowledging that others – such as the campaigns for living wages are actually doing this and work with them, whilst retaining our own role as that of the membership organisation.
None of these three options offers a perfect answer, but thanks to Helen, I think I understand the problem a bit more clearly.