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…