From the TUC

The Missing Millions

07 Dec 2008, By

One of the (many, many) privileges I have in this job is getting to spend time with full time officers and staff who operate at the front line supporting union members, activists and leaders in their efforts organising workers to negotiate fairer pay, terms and conditions with employers.

I spent most of last week in Earls Barton, a lovely little town which doesn’t possess a train station but does house a Community the Union for Life office. The week was spent looking at organising and some of the discussion touched upon the “recession” (are we allowed to say that now?) and its impact on union membership across TUC affiliates.

Looking at their web site today, Community were reporting on potential job losses in Corus giving credence to challenges being faced at the front line and being felt by the workers employed there.

But of significant interest was another announcement detailing the inroads being made by their spectacular “bookies” campaign and the fact that they have secured a joint union/ employer working party to address the very real health and safety problems faced by betting shop workers up and down the country Congratulations to all involved in the campaign.

It did lead me to consider a wider point though.

Last month Labour Research reported on union membership and how we have secured growth for the fourth year in a row in both affiliated and unaffiliated unions. Stats referred to reported only a .2% reduction in union density (a much better determinant of union strength in my opinion) which is a significant improvement on those years where union density was in freefall.

In uncertain economic times there can be a belief that union members will be tightening their belts and viewing union membership as a luxury item and not necessary. “Oh no there isn’t” I hear you cry – Paul is that you? Where we can be certain members will be feeling it is in the reduction of certainty over employment, i.e. job security.

We know that times have changed and the mythical job for life may no longer be taken for granted, still we have enjoyed a sustained period of high employment (due to what, labour government? union power? Economic growth? Investment in the UK from overseas employers? …. insert your own reason) but we also know there are huge areas of the UK workforce untouched by unions in any real strategic way – Paul mentioned the hospitality industry, Carl the motor industry in earlier blogs.

One thing we can’t blame on a recession would be any reporting of union decline at the end of 2008. Different broadsheets and economic commentators suggest that levels of unemployment could stretch into the millions. That may well be true and a very hard truth for workers ending up in those alleged millions.

But we have to remember that not only does our existing membership stand in the millions, our potential membership also stretches into the millions: those that we haven’t yet organised; areas where we haven’t asked colleagues to join; areas where it is more difficult due to high levels of turnover, working patterns and locations; those who don’t even know that they can belong to a union and have some influence over their working life, recession or not.

Our team, the TUC’s Organising and Recruitment team, is constantly looking for campaigns, case studies and inspirational wins that engender the hope we all need to continue forward during these difficult times. We welcome your news and views here on this blog. (Apologies for the plug!)

So where are we?

Are we going to have a fall back to the position of unemployment and Thatcher sidelined the unions in the 80’s and super-impose it over its new millennium equivalent, effectively positioning ourselves to manage decline?

Or are we going to continue to look for those industries and sectors where we can make strategic choices and build union capacity despite a recession?

My view is not only do we need to protect the interests of those who are at the frontline of downsizing: negotiating training, redundancy packages and access to financial support (mortgages, state benefits etc.) but we also need to keep organising to protect the interests of all the millions who will continue to work, wherever we work. Exhausting prospect but necessary?

Answers on a blogcard please….