Time to rethink union organising

When the TUC was founded 150 years ago workers were organising into trades unions in order to improve their working and living conditions and, in some ways––although not in others––not much has changed. The majority of workers today, as then, are not members of unions, and work is becoming increasingly precarious in many parts of the labour market, as it was in the late 1800s.

The 1970s was the high point of trade unionism in Britain, when there were 13.5 million workers in membership and union density was 57%. At that time, workers had the confidence that high levels of collectivism provided the strength to challenge employers and win concessions––because workers were organised as a class, for itself. If workers today were organised at the same level of union density as they were in 1980 there would be 18.4 million workers in unions. Yet despite the ‘turn to organising’ in the late 1990s to offset decades of decline union density is, in 2018, just 23% and around 6.2m members.

The establishment of the TUC’s Organising Academy in 1998 marked a recognition that unions needed to be pro-active in order to increase density in workplaces where unions had already had a presence, but crucially there needed to be expansion into un-organised workplaces and sectors where density was very low or non-existent. This was to be achieved by a focus on ‘organising’––providing union staff and lay representatives with the skills and tools to teach workers about how to effect change and gain concessions and improvements at work through worker representation, power, leverage and collective bargaining. The ‘organising model’ adopted by the TUC and some affiliate unions wasn’t without some important successes––and things would have been dire if this work hadn’t taken place¬¬––but overall the approach has been limited in its effectiveness. As such, it’s time for a rethink of strategy and tactics. What do unions need to do differently and what can we learn from other unions and social movements in terms of renewal and revitalisation?

One way would be to spread the organising net much wider than the workplace––and at the same time to have a clearer understanding of the distinction between recruitment, mobilising and organising. In many unions, these things––although different––are conflated and assumed to be ‘organising’, but they have very different impacts. More clarity in this regard might help unions adopt a deeper and more sustainable organising agenda.

In recent years, we have seen a growing interest from unions in the notion of ‘community organising’ where the places and spaces in which workers live as well as work are utilised to broaden the terrain upon which unions operate. To some extent we have seen some unions operating in this way and achieving excellent results––albeit at a relatively small scale as yet. For example, in 2011, Unite the union opened up its membership to people not in paid employment such as students, retirees, claimants and carers. In part, this initiative is recognition of the loss of power in the workplace and an attempt to re-create an ‘old’ form of trade unionism where unions were once part of the community as well as the workplace. Since then, Unite Community members (as they are called) have formed 120 union branches in their local communities and 16,000 members have been recruited. As one senior staff member reported, ‘our objective, I suppose, is to collectivise our communities and link our community activity with our industrial activity, so there’s no separation between what we do at work and what we do in our community’. The Unite Community (UC) members that have joined the union have done so for a variety of reasons, but for most it has been the desire to be politically active (outside of party politics) and to be able to campaign to make a difference in their localities.

The focus of activity has been broadly the same across the country. People are angered about austerity and especially welfare cuts––the attacks on disability benefits, the ‘bedroom tax’, benefit sanctions. UC members have set up peer support groups, training, and advice sessions to help claimants facing sanctions, and have been successful in challenging these at appeals. Other community activities have been around the sell-off of social housing, particularly in London; ethical procurement and living wage campaigns; domestic violence; organising and supporting food banks for people experiencing crisis; removal of disabled passes on public transport, as well as holding Unite publicity stalls at community events. And all this is done locally helping to build strong bonds and to highlight the social justice nature of trade unionism.

Unite Community members have also supported the industrial members and initiated organising campaigns. They have been instrumental in highlighting the issue of zero hour contracts and targeting restaurant chains in a ‘Fair Tips’ campaign. By targeting Sports Direct, a large company using zero-hour contracts, UC members have not only gained huge press coverage of this issue by co-ordinated action at over 40 shops across Britain and attending the company’s AGM to ask questions, but their continuing protests have also resulted in the billionaire founder of the company being forced to face a committee in parliament over working conditions at the company. UC members have supported industrial members by attending picket lines and doing collections for workers out on strike. This approach widens the purpose of trade unionism to advance the interests of the working-class as a whole––whether or not individuals are, indeed, working–– and as such has the potential to broaden the ideology of trade unionism from its narrow economistic focus to being more like a social movement.

Similarly, a number of smaller unions, including the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, and the non-TUC affiliated unions, United Voices of the World, and the Independent Workers of Great Britain, have adopted a more ‘in your face’ direct action approach to organising workers, which has specifically attracted young workers and migrant workers into membership and activity. In these cases, the unions have recognised that they are, at the moment, unable to win using industrial muscle as the sectors in which they are organising have extremely low union densities. As such, the organising approach is to name, shame and persistently disrupt until their demands are met––and this is proving to be very effective as well as raising the profile of unions among these under-represented groups in the labour movement.

The union movement in Britain could also perhaps learn organising tactics from living wage campaigns, which have been highly successful in increasing the wages of hundreds of thousands of workers. The combination of bringing together communities, including faith groups, schools, and NGOs, to assert moral pressure on companies paying low wages, and at the same time developing leaders in these communities to strengthen their own institutions, helps to build a better organised civil society that is able to assert its power collectively.

If unions were able to rethink what it is to be a ‘worker’ today, they then might be more successful in not only reaching out to new groups and those currently outside the union movement, but also to consider how the identity of workers, for example, in relation to ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, disability, affects their lived experience. One approach to dealing with these issues it to adopt ‘whole worker’ organising that understands that workers’ lives–– including the oppression and discrimination they experience––does not end at the workplace door. People’s lives are intersectional and are embedded in a wide range of social networks which can be utilised in deep organising strategies to build power and to attract the widest range of participants. Jane McAlevey, an advocate of this approach, has said, ‘the pressing concerns that bear down on most workers today are not divided into two neat piles, only one of which need be of concern to the union, while the other is divided up among a dozen single-issue groups, none of which has the union’s collective strength.’ Many workers have already made these connections, and this is an area that unions could profitably tap into should they reconfigure themselves to be a wider social movement.

To meet the challenges faced by neoliberalism, the changing nature of the labour market, the growth of the gig economy, as well as the loss of power in the union movement, there needs to be a transformation in organising practice. There’s a need for much more than an adoption of a laundry list of organising tactics, or the creation of adjuncts to traditional union practice. What is required is rethinking of the structures of power in society (not just in the industrial arena) and what sort of tactics are needed to organise around these in the most effective way.

There’s a need for the building of new alliances to widen the scope of union activity that can bring in under-represented members, but further, it requires a deep internal focus on how to make this happen. Unfortunately, many unions today are still constrained structurally and organisationally by their past (and the present way that they operate). This creates obstacles to the type of organisational learning and power analysis necessary for the type of deep organising innovation that is necessary for significant renewal and revitalisation.

What’s required is a move away from the institutional sclerosis that has held back unions for the last few decades and the TUC could maybe assist with this. To effect transformative change requires leaders that are able to develop strategic capacity and innovation among staff and the wider union membership. This may require unions to rethink the way that they operate and be open to doing thing radically different. A transformative leadership programme facilitated by the TUC could provide the space for radical rethinking of the future of trade unionism. The early pioneers of the union movement had a vision in the 1800s that led to the birth of trade unionism, and it’s now our responsibility to today’s workers to continue to take that forward, but this won’t happen without some serious consideration of how to organise our way out of the decline that we have found ourselves in for the last four decades.

Jane Holgate is Professor of Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds.