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

Monday, 11 February 2013

Union Density - The Only Measurement of Union Power?

The recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report in the US has revealed another downwards turn in union density. It is now at 11.3% the lowest level since 1916. By any stretch of the imagination this is bad news. It generally means less income, less influence less power and less relevance. No one would argue that lower union density is evidence of anything other than a continuing problem.

Strange them that the the Salon report featured on UNISONActive yesterday should seek to indulge in some well meant but over optimistic suggestions that density is possibly not the only factor in measuring union strength. That much is true but we mustn't make the mistake of thinking that we might get along without high density.

In certain circumstances that can be the case. In the 'value chain' of any industry there are parts of that industry that are more vulnerable than others. Selective action in key areas required high density in those sectors. Energy workers are much fewer in number now than in the 1970s but are probably more powerful now than they were then because of the potential of their power should they use it.

As the article points out French trade unions have a very low density but can deliver action. But it's misleading to see that as proof of the power that exists without density. French workers don't have to join unions to be protected by law, French unions have a constitutional right to exist and their funding comes from taxation. So there is little comparison to be made there.

However the best argument the article puts forward is that which says unions with decent density more often than not fail to involve their members in the life and campaigns if the unions. They may offer services and view members as mainly apathetic and so never utilize their collective strength. We have to agree. In the UK our relationship with members is an implied contract of 'pay your subs and we will look after you'. Thus members are sometimes not happy with unions who haven't sorted things out without troubling the members.

An active union membership requires good local shop floor leaders, linked together with good politics and an understanding of their organizing role. Nobody has ever found a meaningful substitute for that. But to build it needs vision, resources and time. It's still not too late.

Niall Flynn