To demand better, we must ourselves be better

Kate Ramsden casts her eye over the health of the union movement as it gears up for an almighty battle.

I attended the TUC ‘We demand better’ march and rally on 18 June in London. It was uplifting. 100,000 people on the streets to protest the cost-of-living crisis that is impacting so badly upon working people and the poorest. The speakers inspired and what was really great was the numbers of women leaders. The TUC’s Frances O’Grady, UNISON’s Christina McAnea, UNITE’s Sharon Graham, STUC’s Roz Foyer, and Shavannah Taj of the Welsh TUC. A huge change in the face of the union movement, reflecting – at last – the change in the workforce, which has so many women members, especially in public services.

There was clear messaging too: about the power of the collective to stand up for our members; the key importance of our members’ jobs throughout the pandemic; the need to recognise how essential those workers are and to drastically increase their pay and status; and the need to be strike ready. Inspiring words to galvanise for the struggles to come.

But as activists, we have to be really careful not to believe our own rhetoric. We need to recognise that for most of our members we still have a huge job of work to do to spur them to action. We are still struggling to engage with ordinary members except on a servicing model basis. Membership in UNISON as in many other unions, is going down. Strike ballots amongst big groups are hard to win.

You would think that there has never been a better time to promote the importance of collective action. Workers are facing yet another serious attack on their living standards, and facing impossible choices between eating and heating. We hear grim stories of members going without food to make sure their children are fed. The demand on food banks has soared. More and more of our children are growing up in poverty.

As with austerity, it is working people and the poorest that are paying the price. Yet we are still one of the six richest countries in the world. Just take a look at the Sunday Times Rich List. 250 people in the UK are worth between them £710.723bn, that’s an 8% rise on last year. The money is there.

Austerity and now the cost-of-living crisis is about political choice. The money is there to fund public services, for decent pay and benefits that allow people to live and not just survive. If the richest paid their taxes and contributed their fair share that would go a long way towards it. After all, how much money does one person need?

And funding decent pay and public services would not only be good for individuals but would also be really good for the economy because we are the people who spend in local shops and businesses and public services are in the front line of tackling poverty. There are many eminent economists pointing that out.

But we are still not getting that message across. We are faced with a government whose every move is to protect a capitalist agenda, that has demonised groups, setting poor people against each other and promoting a culture of divisiveness and discrimination. Our mainstream media punts out that narrative and that’s what our members hear.

We are, perhaps, seeing a bit of a sea change on that score with ‘party-gate’ incensing many. As a movement, we may have a window to start getting some key messages out there. It would be great to see every union leader give the same message over and over about why it makes economic sense for more money to be put into the pockets of our members.

When it comes to organising within our unions, we must do more to engage our low paid, hard to reach members many of whom have never seen the value of a union or collective action. Mainly women, and often Black, many working for private companies, they are currently working all hours to make ends meet.

Time off for trade union duties, though an entitlement, can be all but impossible to achieve, especially in today’s recruitment crisis in several sectors. Yet many of these workers are potential leaders and as a union movement we need to support them to get the time, confidence and support to step forward.

Listening to UNISON’s Lyn Marie O’Hara, a low paid woman who led the Glasgow equal pay strike, you can hear how she was identified as a leader amongst low paid women in Glasgow. The branch then negotiated full-time time off for her, supported and mentored her. That allowed Lyn Marie to get out there and talk to women (and men) who could fully relate to her as one of their own, someone who understood their issues because she had lived and breathed them.

It didn’t happen by magic. It took patient organising with a clear goal of getting equal pay compensation for low paid women. And they won. And when this win was challenged, they balloted members and they won again. We need to learn from this and other successes.

There is no magic bullet for the union movement to engage with all our members and to recruit and organise. The days have gone when everyone understood the power of collective action to defend jobs, conditions and services; where everyone paid their taxes as a social contract; and joined a union as a matter of course. But as the late Bob Crow said: ‘If you fight you might lose, but if you don’t fight you’ll certainly lose.’ 

Kate Ramsden is the Chair of UNISON Scotland’s Communications and Campaigns Committee and a member of UNISON’s National Executive Committee.