Conference debates strategies for union renewal

Faced with declining membership and bargaining leverage, trade unions in the UK are mapping out strategies to build union organisation and establish new relationships with employers. In February 1999, participants at a major conference debated these and other key issues concerning the modernisation of trade unionism.

On 27 February 1999, a conference on Changing work, changing unions, organised by the Unions 21 network brought together some 450 trade unionists, policymakers, academics and other participants in what was billed as the first major trade union conference of 1999. Launched six years ago, Unions 21 is associated with the "modernising left" and supported by a number of unions and related organisations. Its conferences regularly feature leading trade union and Labour Party figures and 1999's speakers included Trades Union Congress (TUC) general secretary John Monks and the new government trade and industry secretary, Stephen Byers.

The 1999 conference covered a range of labour market and workplace issues including the management of unions, the nature of work, changing union cultures, the Europe an single currency and jobs, the legislative agenda and electoral reform. From an industrial relations perspective, the underlying theme was union renewal. The implications of the government's proposed Fairness at work legislation (UK9902180F) were of particular concern to participants. Another key issue concerned the changes which unions have been making in their internal organisation and recruitment activities so that this legislation can be used as a platform for renewal.

A legislative springboard

John Monks observed in a keynote speech that the new employment law framework had been the priority for unions for the past year. The TUC had "warmly welcomed" the Fairness at work white paper (UK9806129F) but unions had "suffered some setbacks" - there had been "some watering-down" of key proposals. A particular point of concern for the TUC was the stipulation in the Employment Relations Bill's union recognition provisions that the scope of a proposed bargaining unit should be "consistent with effective management", a definition which unions would face difficulties in contesting. A far bigger problem was how to reach the 50% support threshold for recognition in the growing "sweatshop" economy, where unionism is virtually non-existent.

Nonetheless, Mr Monks argued that unions "will be better off with legal measures that are a little short of what we expected, but with which employers are prepared to live - rather than a Bill which we cheer to the rooftops, but employers, led by the [Confederation of British Industry], completely reject". The TUC accepted that "the prospects have never been greater for at least 20 years and the opportunities more exciting for British trade unions than at the present time. We've got new laws, we've got new chances but there's much to do," with the emphasis on using the legislation as an organising "springboard".

Partnership with employers

Sharing a public platform for the first time with the TUC general secretary, the new trade and industry secretary, Stephen Byers, stressed that the Labour government saw trade unions as having "a very important role to play in helping the competitive position of British industry and its management of change to meet future challenges". He observed that economic success as well as more progressive employment practices tended to be associated with businesses with recognised and well-organised trade unions.

The minister went on to make a business case for trade unionism, emphasising that its future depended on the building of effective bridges with employers, as well as representing and providing services to individual members. He indicated that this would become increasingly important in a "knowledge-driven" economy and acknowledged that many unions had already moved with the times and were well aware of the modern business environment.

For the TUC, Mr Monks agreed that unions' future lay increasingly in "partnership" relations with employers. However, it was up to employers as well as unions to change their culture - a successful partnership depended on two committed parties. Strong, well-organised union representation was critical to effective, equal relations.

The unions' legislative agenda

Mr Monks added that unions would be pressing for further legislative reform in the next parliament on "key questions such as EU-style information and consultation rights, the scope for a new fair wages resolution to protect outsourced workers, compliance with ILO standards, promoting core labour standards around the world and improving corporate governance to eliminate the excesses of shareholders value-maximisation and executive greed". He said that the most crucial of the current EU legislative proposals was the draft Directive which would require information and consultation with employee representatives in all companies employing 50 or more workers (EU9812135F). The TUC had supported such a measure at its last congress and was disappointed that the current UK government had been a strenuous opponent (UK9811162N), bringing forward exactly the same kinds of arguments as the previous Conservative government.

Recruitment the key

One of the main themes of the conference was that a strategic approach to organising and recruitment was necessary to counteract the seemingly terminal decline in union membership. This focus on the "essentials" of recruiting and organising has been termed "New Unionism". Many participants said that, regardless of the legislative context, without more effective grassroots activity the predicament of declining union membership and bargaining leverage could only continue to get worse.

New Unionism was presented as a "back to the future" strategy, looking outwards to other countries, but also learning lessons from the situation in the UK over 70 years ago when unions went out and "organised the unorganised". Unions face particular problems organising both in the high-technology growth areas and the low-skill, low-paid sectors where there is little tradition of trade unionism. Tony Burke, deputy general secretary of the Graphical, Paper and Media Union and chair of the TUC's New Unionism task group, emphasised that the Fairness at work legislation would give unions their "first chance in a generation" to utilise new legal rights for organising purposes. However, the impact of the legislation would not be automatic: "unions will have to do it for ourselves."

Unions have increased investment in the human and financial resources necessary for successful recruiting and organising. The strategy involves training lay representatives to represent members more effectively at workplace disciplinary and grievance hearings, and releasing full-time officials to work on organising activity. A number of unions have restructured their internal management, often by "delayering" their hierarchies in an attempt to effect savings and decentralise resources, and are adopting new management techniques such as replacing standing committees with short-term, project-specific task groups.

In recent years unions have also promoted the use of specially trained organisers through, for example, the TUC Organising Academy where new organisers are trained to plan recruitment campaigns strategically (UK9708155F). This recognises a cultural shift whereby people need to be approached and persuaded individually, rather than assuming that potential members will automatically respond to generalised campaigns. Trainees also develop the skills to identify when to pursue the possibility of a partnership approach with employers, and when to mobilise the legislative opportunities provided by recent laws. Early evidence suggests this approach works. It was reported that the 1998 TUC Academy trainee organisers had already contributed to the recruitment of 6,000 new union members.

Organising young people

A particular concern at the conference was how to organise among young people, where union membership is especially low. With the future depending on capturing the "lost generation" of youth into the trade union movement, it was reported that the TUC's Academy had just recruited 36 trainees with an average age of 30, the majority of whom were women. Recognising higher turnover rates among young workers, it was also revealed that the TUC was considering initiatives similar to those undertaken by unions in Norway, where students become members of the the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (Landsorganisasjonen i Norge, LO) itself rather than one of the affiliated unions, and in the Netherlands, where one union federation has set up an advice and support service specifically marketed to young people as "the future card".


Participants at the Unions 21 conference recognised that the way ahead for rebuilding unions and their role in British workplaces will be an arduous one, but most were cautiously optimistic in the light of the Labour government's raft of employment law reforms and European legislative initiatives. These were seen as helping to establish new "ground rules" which might stimulate a cooperative "partnership" approach between employers and unions, and help as a lever in renewed union recruitment efforts. Indeed, union recognition levels have already risen significantly over the past year, pre-empting legislative measures (UK9902183N). However, union leaders and activists seemed to accept the point made by the trade and industry secretary that the Government could not act as their "recruiting sergeant". Rather, union resources need to be carefully targeted so that unions at grassroots level are well placed to utilise the legislation effectively, if it is to provide the anticipated springboard for union renewal. (Jane Parker, IRRU)

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