Unions need to be on a mission to re-establish their historic mission, and there is no better time than now.
After the declines in union membership since the mid 1980’s there is nothing new with this need. Unions need to recruit hundreds of thousands every year into the ranks from organised and non-organised workplaces just to stand still. But this is also the time to consider the broader communities in which trade unionists live and work, and the level of social activity and political engagement that does exist.
We are living in very interesting times. There is an increasing recognition that the balance of power between the interest of business and the interest of working people is now too far skewed in favour of business. Real wages are falling. There is a level of mass unemployment and under employment we’ve not experienced since the 1980’s. The austerity agenda is a programme of public expenditure reduction whose impacts are already being felt in every community. Sadly, I could go on….
Vast numbers of potential members are moving against that austerity programme and around single issues within that context. Right now fires are burning in every community and although trade unionists are likely to be in the mix the organising potential is still being missed. Many non trade union members (and as we know there are a lot out there) have been awakened into activism who have never been political engaged before, and might not even consider themselves as being so.
In any given situation the economic context offers both threats and opportunities to trade unions, and successful navigation through them depends upon having the right proactive strategies to organise, retain and sustain themselves. By tapping into what’s happening, unions can be agents for challenge and change, and so extend their relevance.
It should be clearly stated that these opportunities have been there long before the current economic crisis, and will be long after the years of stagnation have passed. Running through the current political narrative, is the fact that ten’s of thousand of people are out in our communities organising and campaigning on single issues every week that are of a concern to them. Big areas are environmental or animal welfare issues, but you find activists campaigning in their high streets on a multitude of issues.
If unions decide to take the lead, by having the policies and support structures in place, but most importantly having the will to reach out beyond the traditional spheres of interest, then new connections are there to be made. For unions this can bring gains in both bringing new people into trade union membership and extending their reach.
With the level of frustration at the current politics people are more receptive to alternatives that offer hope. There is a glimmer of recognition of this with increasing chatter about community unionism, but the response has been weak, slow and not wholeheartedly embraced. There are reasons for this….time, resources, fire fighting and trying to shore up existing levels of support, but also preconceived ideas.
Organising within broader sections of communities is arguably even harder than trying to organise a greenfield workplace. Simply by having a relevant membership category and forms in place, does not mean people will come! (Anyone who has ever been involved in union campaigning will know how well the union machine can produce leaflets and posters, but only for them to stay boxed in an office cupboard). Reduced pricing for community members is also of little attraction alone, when many of the target for organising are amongst the very lowest incomes groups in society.
At the core of any community organising is the need to target the recruitment to the demographic involved. This is not just in regard to members benefits but in the how and where you attempt to engage them and the arguments of relevancy that are put forward.
For brief illustration, the following is four potential target areas for unions to consider and develop effective community organising strategies around. It is not intended to be exhaustive, and some unions are already making some effort in these areas. Many may have even been so for sometime but putting aside any discussion on the effectiveness of that activity for now, there is still a huge potential for unions to reach out and build networks with these groups.
Students – In any year they are just under 2 million students in UK universities and every year 300,000 people graduate. Within their own college environment students are to a degree collectively organised, and entering employment is pending for many. Targeting students through student political groups, career fairs, student union bars, the college National Unions of Students could provide significant recruitment dividends. The trade union that constructs a serious national campaign of recruitment working with/delivered through the National Union of Students could develop something of true organising significance.
Apprentices – Those in apprenticeships offer a similar avenue. According to the National Apprenticeship Service, there are almost 90,000 employers offing apprenticeships to 491,300 workers. Within the headlines figure, there has been rise in apprentices aged 19-24, up to 102,800 in the past three years. Again the colleges provide the potential means for engagement with the young trainees who are getting the taste of what life in a workplace is like.
Unemployed – Where unions, like Unite have been developing community programmes, these have been partially pitched towards the unemployed. Local campaigns have been built around issues like the bedroom tax or workfare and have taken Unite activists into community centres and housing estates. To become part of the union, and to have access to the specific community members benefits, there is reduced ‘50p a week’ subscription. This though maybe still a barrier to attract many unemployed, where 50p can be the difference between eating or missing a meal. As decisions are a raw cost benefit economic assessment, it is worth highlighting that a discount card option from a local high street shop can be highly attractive as part of the ‘member benefits sell‘. Centres for the unemployed, shopping centres or even directly outside Jobcentres should be considered locations for access.
Green and Issue Based Campaign Groups - Every weekend, in every town people out campaigning on issues that are of concern to them. Many of these are through established group like Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth but many are less formal. These are socially conscious and caring individuals who are active in their community. Links can be built by simply providing a chance to promote their causes through an invitation to address a meeting. A provision of a meeting room in a union office or through digital infrastructure, if available. Unions at the local branch level upwards can build relations through attending their events to promote ourselves.
With these target areas, or any other community grouping, the need is to:
CONNECT – Identify, target recruitment materials and strategy so it is relevant to the particular group.
INVOLVE – Once connected, people need to be kept engaged or otherwise they will retreat.
ADVANCE – Once your have your pioneers you can build within the community grouping.
The point of this piece is highlight the potential for unions to rebuild some strength by reaching out to wider groups in the community, and building in the grassroots. I hope that many readers will be saying, ‘well, we do that already’, or ‘well, we do this…‘ and will share that experience here.
This article is part of Unions21′s work on Community Unionism which will culminate in a new publication in September.