Trade Union membership falls: what is to be done?

In Uncategorized on June 2, 2017 by kmflett

Trade Union membership falls: what is to be done?

The latest Government figures for trade union membership, covering 2016, show a decline of several years of stability and slight increase. There are now 6.2m workers in UK trade unions, which is the lowest figure for a good while (but not ever as some excitable reports suggest).

Membership was 13m+ when I first joined a trade union in the late 1970s.

The decline in 2016 is mostly down to job cuts in the public sector where trade unionism is stronger but there has also been a slight drop in the private sector.

Given the publicity that has arisen from unions efforts to address things like the zero hours culture in some areas of employment and the Gig economy- essentially short-term contracts- it is perhaps surprising that there is a decline.

The question is, what is to be done?

I have an interest here as a (now) veteran trade union officer representing managers and professionals in the Square Mile of the City of London (and lots of other places but my office is in the City a short walk from Stock Exchange HQ).

There have been of course a number of suggestions. The point is made that trade union activists tend to be male, getting on a bit and white. Indeed so. But a study of other voluntary organisations will find, in many cases, quite a similar profile. It is not that younger people don’t want to be active- anyone on the anti-Trump protests earlier this year would realise that- but given the pressures of work and daily life, the idea of making a commitment to long term activism seems to be diminished across society at the moment.

So there is a question about the nature of activism.

Another suggestion is that unions need to innovate. Indeed they do, and many have in fact done, although it’s a continuous process. As anyone who has the misfortune to follow me on twitter or Facebook (etc) will know I’m very active in these areas. They are a useful way of publicising things but less good I think at organising and recruitment in union terms.

In reality the work of getting people to join unions still relies on the traditional method of asking people to join in workplaces and persuading them to do so.

Individual aggregation of members will not decisively address that 6.2m figure. Its hard work and it takes time and while returns can be good it will be at best in the tens and twenties in most cases.

As often in labour history it will take wider changes to shift matters.

Think for example of the increase in Labour Party membership after Jeremy Corbyn became leader. What ever you think of the hirsute one, it was a trigger for large numbers to join of their own accord.

In employment that could of course mean changes in employment law which make it obviously more attractive for people to join. We may wait a while..

Alternatively it can mean unions demonstrating their relevance by winning battles and striking agreements with employers to protect or improve conditions in a workplace, giving the union a clear USP and non-members a reason to sign up. It’s quite traditional but nothing works better than effective workplace organisation. That doesn’t need to be achieved by old white blokes, and often is not. The innovation needed there is for union Head Offices to recognise that the future of the union movement may not be organised and led by people that look similar to themselves (or indeed myself, although I have a beard of course).

Keith Flett is Secretary of Haringey TUC and an activist in Prospect/BECTU. These are my own views




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