It’s not just about signing up more members but adapting to the changing world of workby Margaret Prosser / December 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
When I began as a trade union official, the movement had the highest membership rates in its history. More than 13m people were union members and we covered close to the majority of working people with a collective agreement to negotiate their terms and conditions.
Since that “heyday” we have slipped to our lowest numbers in recent memory. While there have been endless papers and articles on how to solve the problem of falling union influence, the majority of “future of unions” articles look squarely at how to recruit more members to increase leverage without looking at the other, equally vital, challenge: how to reverse the decline in collective voice, the ability for workers to negotiate their terms and conditions, with a particular focus on the changing nature of work.
There are practical steps unions can take to secure their future, and we can turn to Sweden to help us. Recently, in my role as Chair of the Unions 21 Commission on Collective Voice in the 21st Century, I had the pleasure to meet two colleagues from Swedish private sector union, Unionen, who grew their membership by more than 100,000 over four years while also beginning to address collective representation for those in newer economies.
Unionen began their transformation with the phrase “everything can be better” which encapsulated a fundamental switch of mindset and approach from the union being a helper in times of distress to an enabler of aspiration. Conversations and research revealed members tended to like work and had fewer perceived problems. Through knowing their members, Unionen undertook a significant cultural change which shifted focus to meeting members on their terms, in their workspaces, through their digital channels, understanding and acting upon the issues which matter most to them.
For UK unions, the lesson here is not about the level of militancy of members, but whether the unions are adapting to the new global economy where members have changed the way they think about, as well as carry out, their work. Changes in demographics, automation, productivity, migration and globalisation and new contractual arrangements (more than just zero-hours) mean that certain industries will decline while others will rise.
While the recent Taylor review of modern working practices goes some way to equalising pay and conditions for agency, seasonal and atypical workers, unions more than ever will need to find ways to identify, reach and organise them. They cannot wait for legislation or government reforms to increase membership.
In 2017, Unions 21 explored the “Changing World of Work,” mapping out where people will be working and where they will need their unions. There are three growth areas: retail, food and beverage, and business services. And within those industries, there will be growth in both the “high skill” and “low skill” areas, meaning unions need to craft an offer which meets the needs of these members.
The other key lesson from the Swedes was that union growth was underpinned by negotiating on behalf of workers at all levels of the economy. Unionen’s growth was propelled by the “Swedish Part Model” whereby regulators and legislators have little jurisdiction over what happens at work, and change is negotiated between employer and union.
While this model certainly supports union presence and growth, it is not some amazement of Scandi culture. It is achieved through hard work, thoughtfulness and recognition by both sides of the power that each has. Swedish colleagues said the employers’ side would do away with the union relationship but the strength that comes from numbers keeps the them at the table.
So, just as we find with UK unions, the need for membership numbers is still vital because it gives us the legitimacy to negotiate. But when we say we speak on behalf of workers, we need to amplify the voices of those who need it most. The decline of union membership has come hand in glove with the decline of worker voice in the workspace.