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

Monday, 2 July 2012

Union Renewal - all ideas welcome but organising is the key

Veteran labour movement commentator Geoffrey Goodman writes in the current edition of Tribune on the role that trade unions can play in rebuilding Britain. Harking back to a 1960’s era of ‘national consensus, Goodman identifies that union membership levels in the private sector have declined to a sub-critical mass, ‘fewer than one in 10 workers in the private sector are now in any trade union’

He pinpoints the devastating impact of Thatcherism ‘it is far more difficult for unions to recruit new, and especially younger, members than at any time since the 1920s and early 1930s. The private sector often puts up impenetrable barriers – fortified by the Thatcher anti-union legislation – which continue to expose the weakened condition of trade union organisation and leave workers feeling indifferent to, or perhaps even fearful of, joining a union’

Goodman identifies the advantages of a powerful trade union movement, not just for workers but also for Labour leaders. This is welcome and it is important that Frances O'Grady and Ed Miliband embrace the spirit of what he is setting out. But the fact remains that the biggest obstacle to trade union growth is the unions themselves and hostile employers. Creating a more sympathetic environment for unions is helpful but it is not decisive. Organising on the ground is a prerequisite for creating a better political atmosphere for unions, not the other way round.

But rather than acknowledge the urgent (and obvious) need to unionise the expanding private service sector and commit resources to organising, Goodman advocates a top down political crusade as the imperative for reviving union influence - ‘an intelligent and wisely balanced campaign setting out the vitally important role for modern trade unionism – a need greater than at any time since the first industrial revolution’

A more relevant analysis of the challenge facing trade unions is provided by journalist Owen Jones on the excellent CLASS website where he identifies the need for ‘a new unionism specifically focused on the service sector.’

Jones outlines the labour market environmental reasons for trade union inability to grow, but then sets out two examples of 'new unionism' created by workers themselves in times when unions were previously in decline. Links with community organising and other social movements are very important in a time when political parties and the parliamentary system offer no prospect of change. But as with the Goodman's position, it is not the decisive action we need to take. Unions that commit significant resources to community organising will be substituting real union growth in workplaces with social activism that does not change the power balance where it needs to be changed - at work.

The solution put forward by Jones that unions should move ‘away from an exclusive focus on workplace-based organising’ is a double edged sword. There is no short cut from, or alternative to, organising workers into unions at the workplace. Community organising campaigns or organising the unemployed around social issues will not in themselves increase union power.

Arguments for industrial democracy and new forms of community activism have some political merit. But organising non-workers into campaigns for social justice are not the prerogative of individual unions or groups of unions. They require broad coalitions in local communities as exemplified by the influential Citizens movement.

Organising to build union membership and union density across the whole economy, but particularly in the private service sector, is the essential ingredient of an effective strategy for union renewal.