Organising out of decline

Each month the London Region of Amicus Unity Gazette, the broad left grouping in the Amicus Section of Unite, holds a monthly meeting for its supporters. This month, the main discussion was about union organising.

Union organising is not just recruitment. It’s about building up a strong organisation in the workplace and the industry, with a high density of union membership, and workplace reps empowered to act for the collective interests of members. It’s about rebuilding a union organisation that declined in most areas since Maggie Thatcher’s Government launched its attack on trade unions.

It sounds basic. But there has been an argument about whether or not it is possible in today’s world. Derek Simpson has frequently argued at the NEC and elsewhere that an organising agenda is impossible. His argument is that, with globalisation, the future for unions is stabilising membership through mergers, both within Britain and internationally. He has described this as “managing decline”.

Going with this is a service model of a union. It’s almost like an insurance policy. Members pay their subs and in return they get a phone number to call if they have a problem. Full-time officers run the Union.

The weakness in this approach is it minimises the idea of a union as a collective organisation of the members where we all work together. A principle of the union movement used to be “an injury to one is an injury to all.” That is frequently forgotten with the insurance model.

The TGWU has a different approach. Their leadership believes it is possible to rebuild union organisation on the ground.

Given Amicus and the TGWU are now one union, this is a debate which is at the heart of the future strategy of our union. So the February Gazette meeting was given over to discussing this issue. For background, the Gazette Regional Convenor had circulated a document from the TGWU Organising Department describing their strategy, Organising out of decline.

We had a long discussion, In all, some 15 people spoke, many making quite lengthy contributions describing their experiences. What was a common theme was a preference for the TGWU approach over that which had been pursued by Amicus.

One of the issues which was highlighted was the changes we need to take place with the way we train our reps. A senior rep in the Not For Profit sector described how a new rep had come back from their initial one week union training course. The senior rep asked how it was. The response was “great, when can I take my first disciplinary”. The training was about representing members as individuals – not about how to build the union as a collective in the workplace.

An ex-full-time officer continued the theme. He said he had taken voluntary redundancy because he spent most of his time acting as a lawyer, representing individual members, rather than organising he had signed up for.

There is nothing wrong with representing individual members – it’s something every rep has to do every day. And it’s great when you are able to prevent a member being disciplined unfairly. The trouble is when ou spend most of your time doing this.

Many of the individual disciplinaries and grievances that come up are a result of the increasing stresses coming through constant reorganisation and increased workload. We’ve got to spend as much time tackling the big issues as we do the individual cases. That’s about involving all the members, and making sure most (or preferably all) the people in your workplace are members.

The policies of confidentiality around disciplinary cases accentuate the problem. I’ve represented members who have been suspended for months and won a verdict of “no case to answer”. It’s very satisfying, especially for the member, but also for me. It’s a secret though. Confidentiality may be necessary in many cases. It does howver prevent the union from publicising the victory and, perhaps, suggesting that the issue, for example, was under-staffing raher than staff error.

When we do act collectively we can win. Unite members stuck together during the last reorganisation at my Trust. We were initially faced with over 100 jobs under threat. In the end we lost only a handful, mostly through voluntary redundancy. At each stage union members acted together. When the Trust sent out letters to individuals, it was usually the union that responded – reducing the pressure on individual members. Every step in the process, the Union exerted its collective strength. Not a 100% victory, but far from a defeat.

The TGWU model is not perfect. I believe though that it’s a good starting point for what we should be doing in health. In London, only 50% of health workers are in a union. We need to up that percentage. We don’t have enough reps. The issues are there. Privatisatiion, centralisation, and cost cutting, all threaten staff no matter what their grade or professional grouping. There is a need for a strong union. A TGWU-style oranising campaign wouldn’t be a bad start.


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