From the TUC

Thoughts on the recession and union membership

25 Jun 2009, By

A few stats from this month’s TUC Recession Report raise more concerns about the potential impact of the recession on union membership.

  • The number of people in involuntary temporary jobs – meaning that they’re doing these jobs because they can’t find permanent ones – is increasing, as is the number of people in involuntary part-time work.
  • Also, we are starting to see large increases in the number of longer term unemployed. There have been sharp rises in the number of people unemployed for between 6 and 12 months and over 12 months.
  • Finally, analysis of the recessions in the 1980s and 1990s reveals that unemployment levels and rates did not return to their pre-recession points for some time after the recession had finished. In respect of the 1990s recession, it wasn’t until seven years after the recession began that unemployment returned to the pre-recession level.

My concern is that we are losing people from the type of jobs that are less difficult to organise – permanent and full-time (density amongst part-time workers is 21.5 per cent – amongst full-time workers density is 29.5 per cent) and from the labour force entirely, many workers who may be union members or at least union supporters.

Whilst it’s hard to predict what the ultimate impact of all of this will be on union membership, when you take into account the above and predictions of large cuts in public spending, I can’t imagine any scenario where union density over the next few years remains as stable as it has recently.

So, what to be done in terms of the organising challenges that unions and the TUC will face? The TUC’s Organising and Representation Task Group will be grappling with this issue over the coming months, but here are five brief thoughts about what unions can do and the TUC can support them in doing;

  1. Make the case for unions – loudly and proudly – in workplaces and communities. The recession (and its causes) has pushed traditional ‘union’ issues higher up the public’s agenda. We need to stress the value and importance of being in a union at these uncertain times.
  2. Organise where we have recognition. In unionised workplaces there are some 3 million people that aren’t union members and many of these have never been asked. We need to make sure that we have the maximum density possible in all workplaces where we are recognised.
  3. Get reps involved in organising and give them additional support. Reps are a vital resource for unions and have a major impact on how members and non-members regard the union in terms of its relevance and effectiveness, and they are obviously best placed to recruit non-members in unionised workplaces. We need more reps, but also more members who are active in the life of the union and to achieve this we need to think how we make union activity look not only relevant and effective but also feasible and practical.
  4. Think about how and where we organise. Union membership has never declined because of too much organising, but we need to think more carefully about where we allocate our resources and concentrate our efforts. How do we get access to the workers that we want to organise? Is it possible to organise across sectors? Can we broaden our base by working more effectively within communities and with community organisations? How do we make better use of new technology?
  5. Find more resources to do all of this and more. Can we increase the resources we get from employers (facilities and facility time)? How do we make most use of the resources that we already have? Is there a positive impact for the union in terms of new members, activists, increased profile and improved perceptions of relevance and effectiveness from all that we do?