Re-Newing Trade Unionism: What the Unions can learn from Labour's Election Campaign

Union membership is in decline and yet the unions remain the most relevant and necessary organisations in the fight for a better, more equal society.

Union membership is in decline and yet the unions remain the most relevant and necessary organisations that currently exist in the fight for a better, more equal society.

Not only is union membership decreasing (down 275000 since last year), but there is an enormous demographic crisis facing the movement. The average age of a union member has crept up, as has the average age of an activist. The TUC have a youth project running, which has established that unionisation rates among the under 30s is falling - down from a very low base in the first place.

There is much that the unions do amazingly well, but to address this ongoing trend Trade Unions need to change.

If Jeremy Corbyn’s election has taught us anything, it’s that anything is possible - but only if we start doing things differently. It also smashed the notion that young people are apathetic and don’t believe in the fight for social justice. There is hope for union revival yet.

So, here’s a list, not exhaustive, but written simply to facilitate discussion and develop ideas on what the movement could start doing to arrest its decline.

  • We need to innovate and think more creatively. The movement is now buzzing with ideas, we need to start listening. There is a new, younger generation of activists who instinctively know how to organise in a digital age, lets learn from them. We need to look at what they are doing and how we can adapt this to build workplace power. The movement around the Labour Party feels vibrant, energised and full of possibility - the Trade Union movement can feel like this too.

  • Don’t be afraid to try new things, take risks and accept that not everything will work; establish a team of organisers and allow them the freedom to test creative new strategies that are outside the box and the flexibility to try tools that have worked elsewhere. If they fail, it’s okay, as long as we learn from and constructively review those failures and bear them in mind for next time.

  • The Trade Union bill (whilst being a huge set back) also provides us with an opportunity, but only if we are ready to capitalise on it. The current legislation means being more strategic in our approach and deciding where our strength lies so we can use this as leverage elsewhere, it may also mean adopting more creative tactics other than the official walk out.

  • Semantics matters in how we communicate what the union is. The moment we have the first conversation sets that tone. It should always be around encouraging workers to join the union to get the tools and support to act collectively against their employer.

  • We could look to the newly radicalised layers of young activists as our future organisers. Build a training programme and get them out in the field.

  • Being a union is not about providing a service, BUT we can assist our members in dealing with issues that affect them outside the workplace in a more organic and holistic way than we currently do. Working people will have issues with immigration, housing and debt. We could link our members together so that they can assist and empower each other collectively within their own communities. Whether that is through weekly drop in sessions, communal gatherings, skills sharing sessions etc; addressing the needs of the whole worker, not just the worker in the workplace. It would open up further organising leads and win the trust of workers.

  • To those that exist outside the movement (most people!) our structures can appear outdated and inflexible. We can learn lessons from how younger people and the new left movement is currently organising - informally, horizontally - outside of rigid structures.

  • We need to rethink how we define what a union member is, including how we ask them to pay their dues. A precarious worker is not going to sign a membership form, particularly one that asks them to make a monthly direct debit. A care home worker on a zero hours contract isn’t going to join unless they see the relevance at a local level. We need many more flexible levels of union membership suited to varying degrees of what constitutes a union member. We could have single issue campaign members. We could have membership that costs nothing until a campaign has achieved a certain goal. The list is not exhaustive but we need to have the debate.

  • There are currently very small unions delivering tangible material gains for their members by building workplace power and running vibrant industrial campaigns. There should be more of this.

  • We need to develop worker tech that supports organisers in building grassroots networks of workers around collective issues and then allows action to be taken - BUT (and this is what’s currently missing from current ‘clicktivist’ platforms) the collective action and networks MUST always be linked backed to the workers being part of a union and focuses on action being taken at workplace level. This isn’t a replacement for traditional organising methods but a tool to facilitate and create a wider network of members.

We invite responses to further discussion of the points raised in this piece, email [email protected]