Refounding Trade Unionism by Liam Carr

I have been reading some policy type books recently, and I have noticed something about the style of writing. It is the use of the word ‘should’. In The Purple Book (2011 Ed. Robert Philipot) one chapter contained ‘should’ in 15 consecutive sentences. I don’t feel totally comfortable writing in that style and don’t often do it in my blog but on this next subject I’m going to try out this policy style.

Liam Carr 

Trade unionism is the subject. One that I believe passionately in, but I also believe that reform is desperately needed.

There has been a steady decline in union membership which has coincided with the decline of heavy industry. All that really remains from those days is the language; union reps are still often referred to as a shop stewards, some still do work in in workshops and look after a section of a larger organisation but this is rare. There is one, now obsolete, aspect of the shop stewards’ role that is worth a mention; collecting subs. Once a week the shop steward would go around and collect the subs from the workers. This would mean that every week the steward would talk to every union member and this would be a chance to raise issues. You can imagine that it might go something like this;

Steward “You got your subs?”

Member “What are you doing about that unpaid overtime?”

Steward “I met with management; we are getting time and half from next month”

Member “Here’s my subs”

Even if in this example the steward was unable to get an agreement on the paid overtime issue, at least the member would know that their voice was being heard. Members now pay by direct debit; this is progress. But paying by direct debit leads to the belief that the union is a simply a service that is paid for, and, in some ways it is like a safety net for when things go wrong. But being in a union is so much more than that. It about being part of a bigger, grassroots led organisation that acts in the interests its members both collectively and as individuals. There are several misconceptions that arise from the belief that union membership is simply a service that is paid for by a monthly direct debit. One is more common that you might think, union representatives are not paid out of members subscriptions. In fact they are not paid at all. They give their time freely, and freely given time is how all duties and activities are carried out. This includes collective bargaining, negotiation to prevent and minimise redundancies and the everyday work of accompanying members to meetings. This is the least publicised bread and butter work that is the bulk of what trade unions do. What the public see is union leaders making statements on TV or meeting with ministers in Westminster but those things are just the tip of a large iceberg.

Subscriptions must be progressive. Some unions still charge a flat rate for membership. All unions should have sliding scale based on wages, starting at a nominal fee for part-time workers rising to more substantial contribution from better paid members: From each according to their means, or to put a figure on it from £4 to £40 a month. Retired members should be engaged, and members who are made redundant should be kept on the membership list for free and supported not only through the redundancy process but contact maintained during periods of unemployment. This would mean that the member would not have to be re-recruited when they find another job.

Union leaders are well paid; some union leaders do earn substantial salaries. This can make them seem distant, like a separate entity. (Some union leaders don’t help themselves in this respect). This distance can be at least partially reconciled by the fact that you would hope that union leaders have started out doing the same sort of job as the people they represent. You could assume, for example, that they must have been elected first as a rep then as branch secretary or chair and maybe also elected on a regional or national committee or the National Executive Council. In other words they have earned their stripes. What happens at the top however is not ideal and we have a situation in some unions where the some people are promised roles. For example the vice president is the president elect and will automatically take up the role without a new election. There are structural changes that could make the leadership more accountable to the membership and also enable them to lead with a clearer mandate.

Structural reform takes time and it is right that it does, a trade union should be a member led organisation. Unions are member led in a lot of ways and the portrayal of union leaders in the press is unhelpful. Despite what some politicians, newsreaders and columnists will tell the public, union leaders do not decide to take strike action. Industrial action is both a last resort and it is democratic; ordinary members are balloted and it is the membership, not politicians, who decide if and when industrial action, for which a day’s pay is lost, is necessary. A lot can be said about low turnout, but the mechanism of balloting members is both complex, outdated and most critically requires a change in legislation in order to modernise it. Online voting is not permitted. To vote for (or against) strike action the members have to sift the ballot paper from the junk mail, vote, then find time to post the ballot paper, all within a tightly controlled time frame which if not adhered to would make strike action illegal. Online voting would increase turnout. This should be discussed in parliament; politicians who have criticised strike action because of low turnout should be keen to debate the issue. Even with low turnout strike action is still justified. The claim is that the majority of members don’t support the action. The counter argument is the majority of members did not object to strike action strongly enough to do the sifting and posting required to democratically register an objection.

If significant structural reforms were to take place motions would have to drafted, seconded and voted though. Structural change should not be imposed on the membership of any organisation, but if the members are asking for structural change then their voice must be heard, even by those who may have a vested interest in an unchanged structure.

There should be far more elected, paid union officials who are afforded the same support in terms of secretarial and IT provision as current appointed officials. The full time official would be on a sabbatical from work for as long as they remain elected, with elections taking place every year at a regional or national AGM or by ballot. There would no longer be a divide, which does exist, between the paid officials and the membership, as the paid official would still be ‘one of us’. This accountability and direct link between the members and their officials would promote a better working relationship. Many paid officials were once activists and most have worked hard for the union before crossing the floor and being paid out of members’ contributions. There is a perception that some paid officials lose the work ethic they had when they were active in the workplace and somehow are on a ‘cushy number’. Elections would ensure that paid officials not only were backed by members and had a clear mandate, but also would ensure accountability.

Changes such as these are not an untested model. The Fire Brigades Union have a structure similar to this where most positions are elected and held by serving fire officers who are afforded facilities time to carry out their role for as long as they remain in post. The FBU have put in place a structure that is paid for by the employer. The employer is providing a valuable service which has mutual benefits including the potential for improved industrial relations.

It is to be acknowledged that the concept of having elected paid union officials remaining in post or on sabbatical could be criticised. Would the official be restricted by the fact that they are still employed by the same management team that on occasions they would be completely at odds with? The relationship between unions and management should not always be adversarial, but clearly if an employer decides to attack employees’ rights or make redundancies, then there will have to be negotiation and the union officials will take a hard line. The fact that the official is an employee may be awkward, but awkward is not the same as impossible. Managers should understand that unions look after the interests of their members and that union officials should act with integrity.

The challenges facing trade unionism are many. One of the obvious challenges is the recruitment of members. Membership numbers have fallen from their height in 1979 when there were 12 million trade union members. This has fallen to around 6.5 million today. The fact that in the intervening period anti trade union legislation was passed by the Thatcher government which was left unmodified on the statute book during years of Labour is not helpful. The trade union movement is exactly that; a movement, and if it does not move with the times the government will feel the need to do the moving. It is true however that if there was no power in a union then unions would not even register on a politician’s radar.  Trade unionism is distinct from socialist politics in that union leaders act not in the interest of the general public but in the interest of their members. Union membership is however greatest in the public sector, so in standing up for public sector jobs, the trade unions are acting in the public interest, protecting not only their members but also the users of public services. Everyone uses public services, but it is the most vulnerable in society that make most use of them, and have the most to lose from indiscriminate public sector cuts.

Trade Unionism is not just about a public sector. One of the reasons that public sector workers are more unionised is that at the time when employment in the mining, steel, shipbuilding and other large industries ended, many workers found themselves working ‘for the council’ and brought the trade unionism with them. The lack of union membership in the private sector is a challenge that can only be overcome by change in attitude. But trade unions can’t wait for a cultural shift to happen. There are people whose job it is to change attitudes and to effect cultural change. They are not politicians; they are marketing experts. Trade union membership is not a product, but we could learn something from their tactics: Increasing brand awareness and selling trade union membership like a product would improve membership in the private sector. The benefits of the trade union product must be explained. The cost is minimal so it is a good value product. It must also be pointed out that the more people who buy this product the better it becomes.

The structure of unions needs to adapt to the private sector where businesses employ few staff. There could be for example an industrial estate or business park which could have one representative. The rep would have facilities time from their employer and any remaining time used in trade union duties elsewhere on the estate of business park. The other employers should also make a contribution towards this time. For example a representative is granted a 0.25 reduction in hours to carry out duties. This might equate to about 10 hours per week. Each employer in the area would then reimburse the employer of the representative. The cost to each employer would be minimal. This is one example of something that could work. Local solutions need to be put forward. It is up to the membership to put in place a structure in the workplace that is then facilitated by the employers concerned.

Giving reps facilities time, in addition to the statutory time reps are entitled to for duties, offers employers good value for money; examples of reps saving employers money include agreeing a phased return for an employee coming back after long term sickness, reduction in tribunal legal fees by intervening early and avoiding legal action and by increasing safety and well-being thereby reducing staff absence.

There are many facets of union activity, but they can all be categorised into big stuff and small stuff. Small stuff is representing members, negotiating pay offers and restructures, trying to prevent compulsory redundancy and trying to get the a fair deal for members if redundancies are made, and also ensuring the safety and wellbeing of staff in a workplace. Big stuff is what we see in the press, meeting with ministers about pay and pensions and trying to influence government policy or lobbying.

The actions of lobbyists is under scrutiny and rightly so. It should be impossible to have favorable legislation passed because you buy a minister a few expensive lunches. Unions also employ lobbyists or political officers and while having a person with a parliamentary pass and access to MPs is useful it may not be the most effective way to effect change. At present we have a Conservative led coalition government and ministers of that party are not likely to be swayed by an employee of a trade union, no matter how persuasive they are. There is a better way; ordinary union members should be encouraged to write a letter or e-mail to their MP. Parliamentary procedure then dictates that the constituent should get a reply outlining what action has been taken. If enough members write, or even if one member writes with an issue that is pressing enough, the MP will then contact the employer, without naming the constituent if there is any danger of victimisation. If required or if the MP thinks it pertinent the MP may write to the government minister concerned. The minister can then act. This method of member led lobbying requires no parliamentary pass and no expensive lunch, and is particularly effective where employees of an organisation live in several constituencies. A minister will find a significant number of MPs difficult to ignore and an employer will find a letter from a minister demanding answers or even requesting information equally difficult to ignore.

Many large Unions are affiliated to the Labour party. The history of the trade union movement is the history of the Labour party. It is no bad thing that the unions fund the party. Some will complain that funding buys influence and that it is a valid statement but parties must be funded and it is better to raise a million pounds by taking one pound off a million union members than the whole million from one business-person. In this way any influence that is gained is gained for the many rather than the few. More unions should affiliate and more unions should put forward candidates for election. But there should be another form of affiliation which would be open to all union members; call it a sort of “affiliation-lite”. On every membership form there should a box to tick to make a monthly donation to the party, the donation again would be based on income perhaps between one and five pounds. Members who tick the box members would be asked each year if they want to carry on with the political levy. Non-levy payers if they want to start. The levy payers could then be afforded voting rights in Labour leadership elections.

It is ok to be nostalgic at events like the Durham miners Gala as we march behind banners with the faces of past heroes, but we can’t ever go back. Workers’ rights need protection today and there will always be those willing to stick their head above the parapet and do the protecting, but structures must be in place to facilitate this protection. If trade unionism is not pro-active and pre-emptive then movement will be susceptible to further attacks in the form of unfavorable legislation. When an organisation is under attack it is understandable that it bunkers down and retreats to its core values. Unions have always been catalysts for change in the workplace. So much has been achieved. The next big achievement must be to effect change within the trade union movement itself.

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