How does your union grow?

Looking back over the last few years, there appear to be three significant strands to growth in union membership. One is organising employers through partnership deals. Another is playing the role of a profession. The third is militancy.


The unions which best exemplify these strands are, respectively, USDAW the retail workers’ union, the NASUWT and NUT teaching unions, and the RMT transport union.


USDAW is now and by far and away the fourth biggest union in Britain. It has grown from just under 300,000 members at the end of the 1990s to just under 400,000 members last year.


In the same period, the NUT has grown from just under 200,000 members to just over 300,000 while its sister unions, the NASUWT, has almost doubled its membership to just under 300,000. Meantime, the RMT grew from 60,000 members in 1997 to 80,000 in 2009 before losing members and then recovering to 77,000 last year.


Before examining these unions, it’s worth noting something about the labour markets they operate in. Generally speaking, they have either been expanding or been relatively stable in recent years albeit the creation of part-time employment may mean that the total of full-time equivalent jobs is not as great as may seem the case. This is particularly relevant for USDAW.


In other words, the vast majority of their membership of these unions is not to be found in sectors like manufacturing which have been hammered in employment levels. It remains to be seen what the impact of the cutbacks will be on these aforementioned unions’ memberships.


Turning to the individual unions, the majority of USDAW’s membership is found amongst a very small number of very large private sector employers – the supermarkets. It is able to recruit in large numbers because of two factors.


First, the union is given the status of being legitimate and favoured by the employer, allowing such things as being able to speak to new workers as they take their induction and training courses at the start of their employment. Second, USDAW spends vast amounts of money training staff and shop stewards to be recruiters and retainers. Indeed, it has its own Organising Academy. This level of expenditure is essential give the scale of staff turnover in retail as a result of both staff moving around and the temporal nature of job contracts.


What USDAW then does with its membership is a key question. It is well-known to be on the right of the union movement and not one which, like the RMT, is keen to use the potential industrial muscle of its members. In this sense, its members punch well below their collective weight.


Yet the struggle of Robbie Segal, a member of the Militant/Socialist Party, did show that there was a sizeable audience for opposing partnership with the employer – she won 40% of the vote when she stood for the union presidency in 2008 and served four three-year terms on the union’s executive.


The two teaching unions, which are now working more closely together than ever before, also employ an organising approach to recruitment and retention, and have again made serious investments in this strategy. They have been at the more progressive end of the spectrum in the battle against the erosion of public sector pensions. But alongside all this, what they have done successfully is developed their united voice so that they can legitimately claim to be the ‘voice of the profession’.


The way they have done this is to be able to credibly and convincingly position themselves as not just the lead representatives on matters of pay and conditions for teachers but also as the spokespersons for the profession in terms of standards, ethics and quality. In other words, they are able to say publicly that government cutbacks to the teaching profession will not only detrimentally affect their employment position but also the education of children.


As producers of education, they have been able to pose as the defenders of the users of education. So far they have not yet become professional bodies like the BMA or Law Society which regulate entry to their respective profession and conduct within them.


In the case of the RMT, the election of Bob Crow to its general secretaryship in 2002 has very much been the talisman around which the union has harnessed the collective power of its members to improve their pay and conditions.


As a union whose members are able to have a significant and immediate impact upon rail services when they withdraw their strategically placed labour, the RMT has epitomised the ‘fighting back’ approach of militancy. The union has been very conscious that it members, especially drivers, ticket inspectors and guards, do have a collective power that many other workers do not. They can ‘pull the plug’ in a way that others cannot. In all of this, it has benefitted from a very strong form of occupational and union identity.


The three different examples, USDAW, NUT/NASUWT and the RMT, do not just highlight that there are different roads to membership growth – which they do – but they also show that the differing labour markets do have significant implications for how this growth can be achieved.


Gregor Gall is professor of industrial relations at the University of Hertfordshire (


The views expressed on UnionHome are those of the authors and not Unions21.

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