UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

An organising union? The debate on our organising future

With union density reducing and an average membership age of 48 in the public sector, can we learn organising lessons from SEIU initiatives in the USA?

Facing the facts of life for the Labour movement in the UK is depressing for activists. Our density continues to roll slowly down and we are increasingly isolated on a desert island of public sector membership with an average age of 48.

With a Labour Government since 1997 creating an additional 600,000 jobs in the public sector and providers, our now ritualistic recruitment target of 1.5 million members remains unachieved. Unite has just shed staff and resources after a loss of more than 400,000 members in the short time since their merger so we are not alone but that cannot give any satisfaction as we prepare for a Tory government.

At our last conference in Brighton we were addressed by Tom Woodruff the Vice President of the US union Service Employees International Union - SEIU. He told us the even more depressing of the decline of their union movement. He contrasted it with exploding levels of corporate chief executive pay and plummeting levels of poverty in the US economy. He got a standing ovation.

Which suggests that amongst us as activists there was a light going on in our collective heads. SEIU has increased its membership from 1.2 to 2.2 million in 8 years and continues to grow in the catering, cleaning and security guard sectors in the USA.

But they commit 50% of their national resources to organising and each ‘local’ of the union has to commit 20% of their resources to organising or it is taken from them by the national union and spent on organising for them. They also increased their union dues by over 100%.

They employ organisers on a big scale who do not deal with any case work at all and the union has dramatically scaled down all its individual representation and non organising work.

All of this was debated and agreed at their National Congress and supported by the rank and file. It seems incredible.

We need to examine and scrutinise this process. UNISON has set up a number of projects and initiatives on organising but they are largely staff driven and based on an element of voluntarism.

The ‘Meeting the Organising Challenge’ has led to a welcome recruitment of organising staff across the regions but our membership levels remain stagnant. We now have the‘3 Companies Project’ targeting the private sector working in partnership with SEIU.

This will be examined in a future report.