There are different (and competing) models of trade unionism.
The defeats of the Thatcher years led to the emergence of ‘service unionism’ – the idea that all this workers’ organisation stuff is out of date, and what we really need are good credit card deals and cheap car breakdown insurance. This always was nonsense, and still is.
The model has evolved somewhat under New Labour’s Blair and Brown governments. The defeatism is the same. Most of today’s union leaders have no confidence in the ability of members to fight against job cuts, or for decent pay, or whatever else the issues are. Their response is to pin all their hopes on a desperately reactionary Labour Government – so they keep handing over the cheques, and pray that the odd scrap might be tossed our way. You don’t have to look any further than the continued onslaught on the public sector to see the bankruptcy of this particular approach.
Amicus, now part of Unite, took this approach a step further. We not only put all our faith in Labour; it also became ‘common sense’ to accept that we would lose members, there was nothing we could do, and the best we could hope for was ‘managed decline’. This is where the pressure for successive mergers came from – MSF, AEEU, Unifi, GPMU all becoming part of Amicus within a very few years. This wasn’t a strategy for building a powerful union that could deliver for its members. It was all about covering up our declining membership and declining influence through merger, so that we could continue to lobby Labour for favours. Again, a strategy that went nowhere.
The T&G section of Unite has developed an alternative approach – flawed, but far better than the Amicus model. I attended a Unite London and Eastern meeting last week, bringing together regional council and committee members from the Amicus and T&G sections to discuss organising priorities. Even the use of the word ‘organising’ is refreshing – it’s been rare to hear it used over recent years.
The day was a useful one. It began with a careful and detailed review of the strengths and weaknesses of the union movement today. There was an open acknowledgement of the decline in our membership – but not an acceptance that this process is irreversible. In our Region, there are 6.8 million workers and only 1 million trade unionists. The conclusion? We have 5.8 million to organise!
There are differences between different sectors. Union density in the private sector is frighteningly low, at only 16.6%. Density is a good deal higher in the public sector, with 58.8% of workers in union membership. Health is the fifth biggest sector in the London and Eastern Region of Unite. We have a high rate of monthly joiners in the Health sector. There were other details I didn’t know: Black women, for example, are more likely to be union members than any other section of our population. The Regional Secretary’s comment on London and Eastern Region was, ‘It’s diverse and we love it’. The Union’s membership in the Region is steadily becoming reflective of the wider community, as is the Officer force. Quite rightly, the Union is organising amongst some of the most exploited sections of the workforce – immigrant office cleaners, for example; and now making a conscious effort to organise Eastern European workers. This is important. We can blame immigrant workers for their own exploitation, OR we can get them in the Union, stand shoulder to shoulder, and fight for decent pay and conditions for ALL workers.
We talked about the opportunities for a new culture in Unite – a culture for growth. This isn’t just about recruitment. There’s no point recruiting new members but losing them a few months or years down the line (the ‘leaky bucket’ approach). Sustainable growth means organising – building organisation in the workplace. The presentation from the Union’s lead organiser emphasised basic trade union principles. The problem with partnership is that it relies on the good will of the employer. The future lies in rebuilding our power in the workplace – ultimately this is what can deliver the industrial agenda. The priorities are about rebuilding workplace structures, developing campaigning capacity at a workplace level, creating an empowered workforce, rebuilding a shop stewards movement… This is the first official union event I’ve been to for years where ‘workers solidarity’ was talked about as a serious strategy for the future.
Is the vision perfect? No – life’s rarely that good. The biggest problem for me is that organising priorities are to be set centrally, with little or now involvement from senior lay activists. My experience is that lay activists have got to set the agenda. This is the only real way to keep the union accountable, on track, and fighting hard for its members.
There are other issues. One is political. Both the T&G and Amicus sections of Unite are wedded to Labour, and ended up supporting Gordon Brown for Labour Party leader. Unite is Britain’s biggest union. Just think of the political impact if we’d thrown our weight behind John McDonnell! There are also clear tensions between the two sections of the Union. The emphasis on organising is a T&G one. There’s work to be done to win the Amicus section to this perspective.
But is this a step forward? Absolutely and whole-heartedly, yes. This is a conscious effort to reverse the decline of our movement, and to do so by a return to the basic principles of workers organisation and solidarity that inspired the trade union movement in the first place. This is very, very welcome indeed.