Trade Union membership: We are the ones we have been waiting for
The release of the 2011 trade union membership figures by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills provides much food for thought for the trade union movement. Across the workforce as a whole trade union membership continues to fall. There was a loss of 143,000 members overall leaving union membership at what should still be considered a highly significant level of 6.4 million.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to just consider what this figure of 6.4 million people belonging to trade unions actually means. In my humble opinion it means that there are still 6.4 million people who see the importance of standing by their fellow workers and the need to represent their personal interests alongside the collective good. Some who want to see the death of the trade union movement will want to portray these figures as the death of the trade union movement. I see these figures, and what lays beneath them as a major opportunity for renewing our movement.
The massive onslaught against working people that is being waged by this coalition government has certainly helped to write the narrative that lays behind these figures. Many workers delivering public services, for example have been transferred to work for private sector employers. This may help to explain why, after years of decline, private sector union membership rose by 43,000 while public sector membership fell by some 186,000 overall. The difference in the figures I think can largely be explained by the number of workers who have simply lost their jobs because of this vicious attack on the notion of public service by this government.
The union that I work for, UNISON, now has in excess of 100,000 members directly employed by private sector employers. We also have in excess of 60,000 members in the Community and Voluntary Sectors. This is, of course, in addition to the directly employed public sector members who make up the rest of our 1.4 million members.
Within that directly employed public service membership it is also the continued fragmentation of work that is a major challenge to our ability to reach and stay in touch with workers. Many of these workers, such as home care workers, do not even have a traditional workplace where they can, meet, get support from, or just rub shoulders with colleagues. They start off from their homes, visit their clients and, at the end of the day, return home. Reaching these public service workers to convince them that their very isolation and vulnerability is reason enough to join a trade union is tough if we continue to organise with methods that were conceived for workplaces that are becoming a thing of the past.
Workers in traditionally high density areas such as the Police and Criminal Justice Service have seen proposals in recent times, in the West Midlands and Surrey, to privatise the civilian workforce. So as these workers face a new fight and, if we fail to turn back this privatisation, a new employer and, potentially, new attitudes, so we are faced with organising in maintaining membership levels and density in a new environment.
Recruiting and organising workers who only have a partial relationship with the workplace is also a major challenge. In Birmingham, for example, the Council has introduced “super offices” for 5,000 employers but that will only accommodate 3000 at any given time. This means union organisers having to organise workplaces that have a transient population. Again, while our traditional organising methods can help they will not be the whole solution. New more imaginative ways must be found to recruit and organise these workers.
UNISON is looking at ways of providing as many gateways to our union as we possibly can. Not just for us to reach, stay in touch with and organise workers but for them to reach and communicate with us. That’s going to be the only way that we can ensure that we can face up to the sort of challenges that we are now facing in terms of a rapid programme of privatisation, fragmentation of work and the breaking down of the collective workplace.
I genuinely believe that we face a defining moment for our trade union and the rest of the trade union movement. This is the opportunity for renewing our movement and making it not only even more relevant for workers today but actually indispensable if you want to work in a workplace that’s rewarding, fair, just and equal. It’s a challenging time (when has it ever been any different?) but it’s also an exciting time where we can build resistance to this government by getting working people to stand up for each other as the 99% against the 1% of privilege who dominate.
When all said and done all we have as working people is our ability to organise and our steely eyed determination to win in the face of attack. We have shown that when we bring these things together in a union we can bring about monumental change. We only have each other to rely on. The great writer, poet and activist June Jordan got it right in my opinion – we are the ones we have been waiting for!