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Friday, 14 September 2012

UK unions have a simple choice - organise or face a spiral of decline

#tuc12 Seumas Milne, writing in the Guardian on Wednesday, provided a welcome riposte to media union bashing over the recent days of the Trades Union Congress:
..Milne notes the 'union weakness in the private sector – where only one in seven workers is now a member, compared with the majority in the public sector' and states that this is 'the product of decades of industrial change, fragmentation and anti-union legislation.'

These structural factors do account for the reduction of union membership in traditional sectors of the economy but do not explain the failure of unions to recruit workers in the growing private services sector or maintain high levels of membership in many outsourcing companies.

As Gregor Gall notes in his IER pamphlet 'Union organising and the health of the union movement in Britain', the adoption of the organising model by unions in the UK and elsewhere was a rejection of the notion that unions are victims of circumstance where the external environment dictated their strength and size.

The external environment in the next decade will involve a restructuring of public services no less profound than those which affected coal, manufacturing, steel and shipbuilding from the 1960's onwards. And the British state will continue to be hostile to collective bargaining (whether at national/sector, regional or local levels). The advent of a Labour Government in 2015 is unlikely to bring radical improvements to labour law in the UK.

It will require a determined and sustained organising effort by all unions to avoid a further spiral of decline. There are no quick fix solutions or short cuts.

Union organising resources must be targetted on renewing the activist base in the workplace, reaching out to the millions of non-unionised workers employed in areas covered by collective bargaining and campaigning strategically for union recognition in those sectors of the economy where union membership barely exists, in particular those with potential economic and political leverage.

The TUC under its new leadership has an essential role to play in co-ordinating union organising efforts to ensure maximum co-operation and avoidance of destructive inter-union competition.