From the TUC

Congress 2012: Organising in the private sector

17 Sep 2012, By

Congress 2012I would consider myself to be both an optimist and a realist. So whilst I am proud to be part of what is still the largest (and best) voluntary movement in the UK, I’m also concerned about our future.

When I started work, the TUC represented just over 11 million trade union members – 5 million more than it does currently. Whilst it can be unhelpful and uninformative to focus on numbers in isolation from the economic context, it is frightening to contemplate just how close we may now be to dipping below critical mass.

Indeed, the reality in some parts of the private sector is that this has already happened.

Opinion research commissioned by Unions 21 showed that unions are no longer an automatic port of call for most workers: Those in the private sector are more likely to seek advice from a Citizen’s Advice Bureau or law centre; from friends or colleagues; to go to a solicitor or look on the Internet than they are to contact a union or the TUC.

Many young workers still enter employment, perhaps naively, expecting to progress in their career and thinking that problems at work happen to other people. They are more interested in participating in activities that support their aspirations than in issues that unions often emphasise.

Many simply don’t understand the language that we have all assimilated over the years – of composite motions and debates on remission – and often don’t have the patience or inclination to learn it. The communications gap is not just about technology, but is neatly encapsulated in a comment from one young worker who perceived trade union members to be ‘people who wear brown shirts and go on caravan holidays’ – in other words not like her.

So there are some significant challenges to demonstrate that collective voice is most effectively exercised through the union route, though it would appear that these stem more from ignorance or indifference than hostility.

Trade union values are inclusive and solidaristic. These stand in stark contrast to the Coalition’s tribal politics, and there is a rising tide that recognises the urgent need for a fairer approach. This is an opportunity that unions must seize – recognising that there is no simple or singular narrative about the world of work.

Whilst there is still much to be done to improve membership density in recognised workplaces, a key part of the challenge we face is to extend union membership and influence across the private sector. This will demand innovative as well as traditional approaches and it requires a TUC-wide response.

Motion 6, proposed by Prospect and supported by Unite, USDAW, Community and the Society of Radiographers, addresses this challenge and promoted an interesting debate. But it should be judged on what changes result.

As a former General Secretary once said, ours is a ‘movement not a monument’. Now is the time to prove him right.

One Response to Congress 2012: Organising in the private sector

  1. Alun Williams
    Sep 20th 2012, 9:13 am

    Sue Ferns has raised here what is possibly the most important issue for the trade union movement at present. How does it remain or become relevant for the modern workplace if it is dominated by the public sector. What is even more worrying is that this has been an issue for the movement for the last quarter of a century – the period during which as Sue says the movement has declined in numbers from 11 million to six.
    There is little evidence that the trade union presence in the private sector is reviving – this is not just because workers are not willing to speak in terms of composites or remissions but because they do not see that this activity achieves anything.
    In addition the problem is that the trade union movement seems to be talking about ‘organising’ whilst often acting as a consumer service. The development of collectivism is not easy in a consumerist and individualistic society. The extension of union membership and recognition has proved to be a massive problem. But the future protection of workers depends upon its success. In my view the unions have not managed to use forms of new technology effectively if at all, and in some cases have been reluctant to try them – information can be more easily given but this means it is more difficult to control. Groups are more difficult to monitor and old boundaries and loyalties can be easily broken.
    However our thanks are due to Sue Ferns for keeping the discussion going and in this I wish her every success!!!