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

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Evaluating Union Renewal Initiatives since 1997 & lessons for UNISON

The industrial relations academics Dr Melanie Simms and Dr Jane Holgate set out some interesting findings about union organising that are worth all UNISON activists reading. Examining the strategies used by Unite, GMB and USDAW since 1997 it draws down some uncomfortable and depressing lessons for those who follow the ‘we’re doing OK’ view of Organising: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/wbs/research/irru/publications/recentconf/ms_buira2010.pdf

The findings focus on three distinct areas.

Firstly they note that unions operating in the ‘fairness not favours’ environment of the New Labour government have failed to grow. There were more than 600,000 new jobs created from 1997 – 2004 in the public sector alone – over half a million new workers to recruit – and this made little or no impact on union growth.

But they also note that all unions are now striving to adopt a more robust organising approach that has a broader understanding of good organising outcomes. In other words recruitment in so called ‘hot shop’ campaigns is not a sign of growth. The issues of sustainability and having bargaining outcomes are crucial factors.

The authors get a little tied up in contemplating the differences between coercive power (militancy and high density) and legitimate power (open ended relationships with employers). The choice is a luxury we can’t afford as legitimate power only comes with respect for union power which often has to be built on coercive power strategies.

Secondly the use of collective bargaining in itself as an indicator of good organising is subject to a number of limitations. Although the measurement of recognition claims is important in the private sector and private industry, in the UNISON world it hardly features as a measurement as our perceived core is still inside the public services. But we know this changing rapidly. Here we have a problem.

A robust deal with one company may undermine them in the market when competing with non union firms. Too often the conclusion is then drawn that we can only win ‘legitimate power’ - as defined by the authors – through sweetheart arrangements where we don’t organise the workforce other than through benign partnerships. So we find in the research that there is no growth in the leading companies in the private sector.

This simply reiterates the need for a strategic approach to our organising, choosing targets with some logic that increases our leverage in that particular service area or sector. Nationally what is our plan? Which employers do we target first and why?

Thirdly they examine the age old problem of whether union growth can be built by workers self organisation. If growth comes from shop floor power doesn’t that mean shop floor power inside the union and not just in a workplace?

The role of full time professional organisers is raised. Although member power versus officer power is a longstanding subject of academic inquiry, it need not be a major consideration where the common goal is building union power. The best way forward is to engage all union resources in organising in a sustained focused manner, including the staff, in order to build the sustainability strategy.

The staff should focus on finding leaders, mentoring them, supporting them and being patient in expectations of growth. This may include the use of ‘hot shop’ campaigns and other more controlled strategies but the assignment of resources is the real key.

This problem is reflected in the fact that in most UK unions organising is an ‘add on’, seen as a separate function or one of a number of weapons rather than the core function. The GMB is moving to examine this and Unite is already looking to tie in collective bargaining to its organising rather than simply recruitment.

In UNISON we are blessed at the moment with resources. But with an ageing membership, a declining workforce and rocket boost for privatisation in Government policy we do not have the time to pause on this. We have debated organising at conference, we have voted for it. The imperative for every branch and region is to do it.