The TUC proposes an Organising Academy

After a continuous decline in UK union membership over the past 18 years, the TUC is looking at ways of reversing the decline, especially by promoting unionism in sectors of employment growth. Its "Organising Academy", due to commence operations in 1998, is based on similar successful initiatives in the USA and Australia.

In December 1993 the Trades Union Congress (TUC) stated its intention to become a campaigning organisation and abandoned much of its committee structure in favour of a series of "Task Groups", each dedicated to a single campaign issue. As part of this campaigning initiative, a New Unionism Task Group was launched in 1996, with the purpose of reversing membership decline by promoting trade unionism in sectors of employment growth. In order to meet this objective, the New Unionism Task Group proposes that an "Organising Academy" be established at which mainly young, dedicated organisers are trained in recruitment methods before working with participating unions in the field. The TUC general council gave its go-ahead to the proposal on 23 July 1997

Why establish an Organising Academy?

Trade union membership in the UK has declined every year since 1979. This is the longest continuous period of decline since records began in 1892. By 1996, trade union density had fallen to about 32% of the employed workforce (UK9707145F), having peaked at around 56% in 1979. In practice, unions have failed to recruit in private sector services, among "atypical" and "contingent" workers, among young workers and among women workers, in sufficient numbers to replace the members lost from sectors of traditional union strength, such as manufacturing.

Earlier TUC-inspired recruitment initiatives did not reverse the decline in membership, although they raised awareness among trade unionists that recruitment was a high priority. For example, the TUC established a Special Review Body (SRB) in 1987 to examine union recognition, inter-union relations, organisation and union services. As a result of a recommendation from the SRB, most TUC-affiliated unions introduced packages of financial services with the intention of encouraging membership, particularly among white-collar and part-time workers. This approach represented a significant shift in policy, as it assumed a consumer-oriented and passive relationship between member and union, rather than one based on organisation and participation. However, it failed to arrest the rate of decline. Survey evidence suggests that financial services are not attractive to new members, and that traditional support and representative functions have a much more widespread appeal. The TUC also initiated two local recruitment campaigns - at London's Docklands and Manchester's Trafford Park - in which the recruitment activities of several affiliated unions were coordinated by the TUC. The results of these campaigns were disappointing, resulting in the abandonment of several further planned initiatives.

A central issue in developing a recruitment strategy in the UK is that existing union practice is geared to recruiting at sites where there is already a union presence. Shop stewards are the most successful recruiting agents, but tighter restrictions imposed on facilities time by employers have curtailed opportunities for shop stewards to recruit at non-union workplaces. Shop stewards' recruiting activities are thus concentrated at their own place of work. Full-time official s have traditionally been important in recruiting new members at unorganised workplaces, but two developments have limited the extent of their involvement in recruitment. First, the demands of servicing existing members, particularly where collective bargaining is decentralised, take up the overwhelming majority of the time available to full-time officials. Second, many unions have cut the number of full-time officials, thus compounding the shortfall in available time. For different reasons, therefore, the two key union recruiting agents are unable to extend membership into the expanding sectors of the economy in sufficient numbers to replace those lost from manufacturing.

The graduates from the Organising Academy are thus intended to fill the void in organising activities left by the absence of shop stewards and full-time officers. The establishment of the Organising Academy follows similar initiatives taken by the AFL-CIO in the United States and the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). The American "Organising Institute" and the Australian "Organising Works" programmes were established in 1989 and 1994 respectively. Trainees in these schemes tend to be in their mid-20s, to be existing union members and to have worked in some form of atypical employment. Initial evidence suggests that the graduates of these programmes are able to recruit new members in sufficient numbers for the union to recoup the wages costs of the graduate in the form of additional membership contributions.

Features of the proposed Organising Academy

The key principle of the proposed Organising Academy is its emphasis on the organising model; that is, a return to workplace organisation built around collectivism and membership participation. The servicing model, in which the union is viewed as a provider of services without any requirement for membership participation, is thus downplayed. Integral to the organising model is a reliance on face-to-face organising in preference to more passive forms of recruitment, and an understanding that high levels of membership training are necessary if workplace union organisation is to solve its own problems. The purpose of the Organising Academy is to provide trained, specialist recruitment officers who will stimulate and develop workplace organisation along these lines at hitherto non-union workplaces.

The proposal to establish the Organising Academy assumes a partnership between the TUC and participating unions. Participating unions will sponsor each trainee and will be involved in their selection. The wages and training costs of the trainee organisers will be shared by the TUC and participating unions during the training programme. Thereafter, the trainees will become paid employees of participating unions. The Organising Academy will be overseen by a steering group comprised of representatives from the TUC and participating unions. At the time of writing it remains to be seen how many unions will participate in the scheme.

The proposal is for the first cohort of between 15 and 20 trainees to enter the Organising Academy during 1998. This group will constitute the pilot programme for the Organising Academy. The trainees will be recruited on the understanding that "like recruits like". In other words, the trainees will reflect the diversity of the workforce that they will attempt to recruit into membership. The Organising Academy will offer a 12-month training programme comprising induction and basic training, classroom teaching on core skills, and blocks of placements with the sponsoring union. Throughout the training programme, a system of coaching will be developed in which experienced organisers from the participating unions will assist trainees in their acquisition of recruitment and organising skills.

Commentary

The TUC proposes to accept a first intake of trainees to its Organising Academy during the first half of 1998. Trainees will undertake a programme of classroom and field-based coaching in recruitment and organising skills, before transferring to a sponsoring union where they will be employed to build union organisation at non-union workplaces. This initiative combines both the TUC and affiliated unions in combating membership decline and represents a shift towards an organising model in pursuit of additional members, rather than a reliance on more passive approaches to recruitment. (Jeremy Waddington, IRRU).

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