Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Could strike action help our unions grow?

Having stepped down from my various UNISON roles a couple of months ago, I have more time to think and read. I am, of course, still interested in trade unionism (and am still a public sector trade unionists).

In a couple of recent blog posts I have commented upon trade union decline - but what do I think trade unions should be doing in order to grow? Well, in this blog post I will address just one answer to that question.

I commend this research from the British Journal of Industrial Relations (Does Strike Action Stimulate Trade Union Membership Growth? by Andy Hodder, Mark Williams, John Kelly and Nick McCarthy) which reports on detailed research on data held by the civil service union, PCS.

The answer, not surprisingly, is a qualified “yes”; “Overall, our data suggest there is a strong and robust link between strikes and union membership: months in which a union organizes strike action show significantly higher rates of gross and net recruitment compared to nonstrike months”.

This doesn’t just ring true – it rings loud and clear. Having served on UNISON’s Development and Organisation Committee for fourteen years until this June, I have read and discussed more than fifty quarterly membership reports – time and again I saw that spikes in recruitment to UNISON were associated with campaigns of national strike action.

Interestingly the research also demonstrates that strike action which is suspended (or called off) doesn’t produce a positive impact upon recruitment. Potential trade unionists are attracted to trade unions when our unions show themselves as acting in the interests of members and potential members.

For years I heard right-wingers in the union try to deny the compelling evidence of our own statistics in order to decry an argument in favour of a fighting trade union, whilst (some) national officials desperately tried to convince themselves that advertising campaigns could grow the union.

The paper by Hodder et al is no easy read, but those who aspire to lead and organise national trade unions should make the effort to read it. The rigorous analysis of evidence demonstrates that trade unions grow when they fight for their members and potential members.


Of course there are other factors which influence trade union membership numbers - and the decline in membership of PCS attributable to mass redundancies and a politically motivated attack upon the "check-off" system for paying subscriptions from salaries may well demonstrate that if one union is not supported by others when under attack from a hostile Government any positive impact on its growth from its willingness to fight may be swamped by the negative impact of political revenge.

What might have happened if PCS had not been abandoned by its sister trade unions is a whole other question.


Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Which trade unions are in decline?

I blogged a little while ago about the disappointing official statistics which show the current decline in trade union membership. For some years I have been perplexed that the official leadership of the movement isn’t more alert to our plight. Perhaps it would be clearer if it were looked at from the perspective of each individual trade union.

The Guardian’s report of those trade union statistics quoted UNISON General Secretary, Dave Prentis as saying that his union had increased membership this year. However, UNISON’s return to the Certification Officer, received on 3 July 2017 reported that UNISON had 1,225,500 full paying members on 31 December 2016, compared to 1,239,750 in 2015. That’s not an increase – it is a decline of 1.1% (albeit it is 88,000 more full paying members than the “larger” union UNITE, whose full paying membership had fallen by 7.9% to 1,137,468 from 1,234,757 a year before). GMB members who think that their union is growing need to accept that 617,213 full paying members on 31 December 2016 is lower than 622,596 on 31 December 2015 (a decline of only 0.86% but a decline nonetheless).

With the exception of the teaching unions, all the large unions lost members. It is not just our largest unions which are declining. Community, the descendent of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, beloved of Blairites, and recently in the news for coming up with yet another “innovation” (the recruitment of freelance workers) had 23,475 members on 31 December last year, having fallen by 25% from  31,523 four years before.

As to those who look to the vociferous minnows of the movement outside the TUC who are laudably taking up issues for precarious and hard to organise workers, I fear they will need a magnifying glass. The Industrial Workers of the World had 1,121 members as at the end of 2015 – impressive growth from 437 members three years before (but still tiny). The breakaway from the IWW, the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) doubled its membership between December 2014 and December 2015 – but since that was an increase from 405 to 810 that still leaves the entire union (even with any subsequent growth) the size of a UNISON branch. As for the innovatory “pop up union” which popped up at Sussex University – that ceased to function so quickly that it never left any official record. Another of the small unions, United Voices of the World, hasn’t yet submitted its return for 2016 but had just 124 members at the end of December 2015.

It would be nice to think that the TUC will address the decline in our movement at Congress 2017. Watch this space. But don’t hold your breath.