From the TUC

Reaching out to the never members

09 Sep 2011, By

The state of membership in the private sector, as revealed in the latest Trade Union membership statistics released earlier this year demands a new and innovative approach to how unions reach out to the majority of workers who aren’t in a union.

There’s an adage that says unionised sectors of the economy can’t remain islands of decent pay and conditions in a sea of declining standards. If we wanted proof that this is true then we need only look at the way in which the paucity of decent occupational pension schemes in the overwhelmingly non-unionised private sector has been used to undermine public service pension provision.

The scale of this challenge is significant. Density in the private sector is now just 14% – barely 1 in 7 private sector workers now belong to a union. Unions are present in less than a third of private sector workplaces and less than one fifth of private sector employees are covered by collective agreements. Since 2000 density in the private sector has fallen by 3.7% and membership by 840,000. And since the late 90s the number of workers who have never been members of a union has steady increased. Now, over half of all employees have never been in a union and in the private sector, three fifths of employees have never held a union card.

This is not to dismiss the efforts made by a number of unions in attempting to organise in the private sector but we have to be realistic and accept that the scale of the challenges means that we aren’t going to organise every workplace in the traditional way in enough time (the average size of a bargaining unit as reported by the CAC in 2010 was just 87 almost half the figure recorded in 2006). Nor is there any evidence that large numbers of workers going to spontaneously organise themselves.

If we accept that union membership, in marketing terminology, is an ‘experience good’ i.e. only by being part of a union does a person fully realise and appreciate the benefits of membership, part of any new approach to reaching out must involve thinking about how we can give more workers an opportunity to experience the benefits of union membership.

In thinking about how we set about this, the TUC and unions in the UK might look at an initiative launched recently by the New Zealand CTU. ‘Together’ is a new organisation established and run by the unions affiliated to the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions which aims to connect workers in non-unionised work places with the union movement and the union experience. Membership, which costs just NZ$1 per week, gives employees and contractors in workplaces and sectors without union support, access to help and expert advice.

What makes the CTU ‘Together’ initiative interesting is firstly the way in which it is in-part targeted at existing union members and encourages them to sign up members of their family and their close friends (this is based on surveys of union members that found high levels of concern about how their family members and friends were treated at work) and secondly the way it is used to join members together and with union campaigns. The pitch to workers is the offer of support and advice via a dedicated website and call centre and information on and access to union campaigns. The income is used to fund both the support that ‘Together’ members receive and new organising initiatives.

‘Together’ is explicitly not a substitute for union membership (you can’t, for example, join together if a union is already recognised or running a campaign in your workplace – it’s a way for ‘never’ members to connect with the wider union family.

Some may say that workers know where we are if they want to join us but the fact is that actually lots of workers don’t even know WHAT we are let alone WHERE we are. Others may say that the New Zealand initiative sounds like a return to the false promise of credit card trade unionism, but I think that we have learnt enough about the limits of that approach in the 80’s and 90’s not to repeat it. If we are smart we can use this and other new forms of engagement with a whole new group of workers to inform our organising priorities and add to the campaigning work that we do. Finally, such an initiative would only be really worthwhile if it worked alongside, not in place of, traditional workplace organising.

And there’s evidence showing that we can find a way of making union membership more easily available to the millions who don’t currently have it, there’s a receptive audience waiting to hear from us. Polling work for the TUC has shown that unions retain broad support from the British public – with 60% of the public agreeing that ‘unions provide vital protection for many groups of workers’ and in 2005 over 40% of workers in non-unionised workplaces said that if asked they would be likely to join a union.

A continued decline in membership and density in the private sector, particularly should it fall below 10%, will not only give our enemies a reason to question our legitimacy as voice for working people in the private sector, where most people in the UK work, but will increase the pressure on the terms and conditions of workers in unionised sectors of the economy. It’s in the long term interests of both unions and workers this is not allowed to happen.

This article also appears in the latest edition of ‘ForeFront’ the journal of Unions 21

5 Responses to Reaching out to the never members

  1. Gregor Gall
    Sep 9th 2011, 4:13 pm

    In the private sector, notwithstanding certain examples of those sectors that were previously nationalised, I suspect many potential members do not join because of a simple reason, which is that they see ‘unions’ as being too weak to help them (generally and in their specific workplace). This is a classic Catch-22 situation to find yourself in, and all the more so when potential members are looking for a servicing-type relationship. How to square the circle? The obvious answer would be the demonstration effect of a wage campaign or strike but that in itself is no easy answer because they are not ten to the dozen at the moment.

  2. Carl Roper

    Carl Roper
    Sep 9th 2011, 4:24 pm

    Gregor. Thanks for the reply. the only issue I have with your comment is that to accept as the reason that workers don’t join unions is that they dont think they’re effective assumes that most workers know enough about unions to form such an opinion. Unfortunately the evidence is to the contrary.

  3. Gregor Gall
    Sep 9th 2011, 7:15 pm

    Carl, I think there is something in your response (although I don’t know what work you’re referring to but would like to know). However, the sense of unions being stronger, I think, would lead to workers to see the ‘problems’ they face in a different way even if that wasn’t quite an epiphany. With most things, it’s unlikely to be all of one or all of another in accounting for ‘never members’. For example, if some realised or were convinced that unions are not a ‘threat’ to western civilisation (a la Daily Mail) but do x and y which are of benefit to workers and society more generally, their degree of receptiveness would change and thus make them relatively more open to unionisation.

  4. Nigel Davies
    Sep 14th 2011, 8:16 pm

    I was a trades union member in 1979 until 1981, NALGO. It was the worst employment experience of my life. I was a member not through my own free will but due to the “closed shop”. Union deductions were forcibly made from my salary, part of those deductions were passed on to the Labour Party whom I did not necessarily support, my vote was used without any consultation via block votes for policies I didn’t necessarily support, I was regularly approached to sympathy strike. I was subject to extreme intimidation to not cross any picket line. It was the most belligerent, undemocratic, obnoxious, confrontational, intimidating experience of my working life.

    When the closed shop was banned I and millions of others abandoned the unions forever. Union membership collapsed from 55% of the UK workforce to a paltry 28% now. Had the unions conducted themselves with dignity, sensitivity and respect for my rights my children would now be trades union members but I know literally no-one in my personal nor professioanl life who is either a union member or has any sympathy for the antagonistic and damaging behaviour they indulge in.

    Trades unions in the UK are the role model for “what you sow, you shall” reep. They have destroyed themselves and their threat of further industrial action that should have died in the 1970s will put them into terminal decline. When 10% of the UK population who are union members disrupt the lives of the 90% who are not, and boast how “proud” they are of doing so, then they face a backlash that will make them even more irrelevant than they already are.

  5. Chris Beggs
    Sep 16th 2011, 10:55 am

    Nigel I’m sorry to hear your experience of what you went through back then, and I’ll be honest I experienced some of the things you described when I origianlly got involved in student trade unionism in the late 90’s.
    That experience put me off being involved for nearly a decade, but when I joined my last employer who I was with for several years I needed some help at the end of my probation which two of the office reps did for me. They then asked me to get involved as a rep a short while later and I did, with some level of trepidation due to my previous experiences.
    What I found drastically changed my opinion, in that the vast majority of reps weren’t involved just to cause trouble or to bully folk, rather they spent every day trying to help people stay in their jobs and support them be at work. Don’t misunderstand me, I met and had to work with a number who would have fallen into the categories you describe, but thankfully they were in the minority.
    From reading your description it feels to me that you are carrying your experiences of what happened in the past with you and allowing it to colour your judgement of all Unions, understandable given your experience, and something I did myself. Howvever it is that tarring all activists and unions with the same brush which I think is a mistake. I believe in social equality and also workplaces should not feel like a daily punishment. My experiences of trade unionism for the last almost decade have been positive and I speak with anyone who is interested about how if those with bad experiences don’t get involved, to put forward the balance in arguements for action and behaviour then unfortunately the minority can cause that sort of negative experience you describe.
    On the disruption front, my feelings on this have crystalised quite abit over the last last decade and a half and that is that the last succession of governments simply haven’t done well enough, they have repeatedly let down the country as a whole through their own greed (see expenses scandal), incompetience, indifference to the publics will (see Iraq, WMD fiasco), education and public health misdirections amongst many more. I believe that I and others have the right to protest in a peaceful way to make that point to the governement that so far have ignored the concerns raised from the public. If that action, industrial or otherwise interupts your day to day I am sorry that is the result to you, but when employers and the governement ignore you for so long what other recourse do you have? I would say that while membership density has dropped the relevance of being a union member has dramatically increased.