Project Description

Building
the Union

The COVID pandemic and its long-term economic impact make it more essential than ever that workers have strong and effective trade unions to protect their interests.

Governments have borrowed eyewatering amounts to support workers and businesses in these challenging times. Even as the world emerges from the pandemic, the long-term effects of recession and extraordinary levels of borrowing will put further pressure on workers’ livelihoods. Workers in the public services are particularly vulnerable, as governments look to reduce public expenditure to try and balance the books.

Faced with these threats, workers need strong trade unions to protect their interests. Yet all this is happening at a time when, as research by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) shows, many trade unions across Europe are in long term decline, with falling membership and density. The ETUI report indicates that trade union density across Europe went down from around 28% in 2000 to less than 22% in 2016. The decline is particularly acute in some Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries where again according to the ETUI there has been ‘a massive decrease in membership…(which) continues today.’ To reverse this decline in trade union strength, unions need to organise and this involves two vital and complementary elements:

  • Recruitment and retention of members, which manifests itself in trade union density in the workplace. This shows the strength of a trade union; and
  • Activism and engagement among members. Having an active and engaged membership is essential to mobilising those members in support of demands made by their trade union on their behalf.

Trade union federations, such as EPSU – representing public service workers across 50 European countries – and many individual trade unions have already committed to focusing on organising. The pandemic and its economic consequences make this more urgent than ever. This article reflects on EPSU’s long-term strategy targeted at its members in Central and Eastern European (CEE) and sets out the principles of organising that affiliates are being encouraged to adopt and some of the early learning from that initiative. Since autumn 2019 EPSU has a new recruitment and organising team consisting of Agnieszka Ghinaruru, Miloš Vlaisavljević and Artem Tidva with a range of experience in organising, campaigning trade union education.

They are now focusing on affiliates’ strategies and aim to build a robust framework for organising, including long-term support. The groundwork has been laid with several seminars where the principles underpinning a good organising strategy have been discussed and affiliates were able to raise the challenges they face. It became clear that there is an appetite among CEE affiliates to organise and that many of them could benefit from further support from EPSU.

What follows is a synopsis of the organising principles that were presented to affiliates in sessions focusing on developing strategies, together with some of the initial feedback.

Agnieszka explains that: “the key points that affiliates were asked to consider were prioritisation of organising, making sure that they had the right tools to support organising, how to attract members and activists, communication and continuous learning through evaluation.”

Organising must be a priority for the whole union

While many unions say that organising is a priority, very few understand the importance of organising being embedded throughout the union. The danger is that when organising is simply another priority among many others handed down from the top, then ‘if everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.’ Organising gets crowded out as the union firefights the many urgent problems members face. Ideally organising should always take priority and, where other urgent issues arise, organising should form part of the union response to those issues. It is essential that:

  • The importance of organising is discussed across the whole union and that members understand that it is an essential prerequisite of trade union power, enabling the union to ensure that workers are treated fairly, and their livelihoods protected.
  • Organising should be an integral part of all trade union education.
  • The union must recognise the importance of organising in what it publicises and rewards.

Unions need the essential tools for organising

The single most crucial tool for organising is a record of existing members and activists. Ideally this information should be held on a centralised computerised database that can be easily interrogated to locate and categorise members. If the database is properly maintained with contact details it can be an invaluable communication hub.

‘Unfortunately”, Miloš says, “several CEE affiliates have decentralised membership systems, and sometimes experience problems with local gatekeepers who are opposed to a centralised membership system.” The creation of a centralised computerised database would allow these affiliates to identify organising opportunities and facilitate the mobilisation of members and activists though a centralised communication system.

What is the ‘union offer’ ?

Unions need to be clear about what workers get for joining the union and paying subscriptions. In marketing terms membership is an ‘experience good’ and ‘the potential benefits . . . is optimally disseminated via personal recommendations.’ In other words, workers are being asked to trust that the trade union will deliver on its promise to promote their interests and do so more effectively if they join.

If the union wants to mobilise members and encourage workers to join and become active in the union, it must build trust. The following are important building blocks for the union establish trust amongst workers:

  • Dialogue with workers, first and foremost this means listening to their concerns, as well as telling them what the union can do for them.
  • The union must be seen to be active in the workplace, so that workers believe that the union is there for them and that they are welcome to participate in it. Activity in the workplace can take many forms, including distributing information on noticeboards and through leaflets, holding meetings and raising issues with local management.
  • Workers will then naturally want to see the union actively campaigning for things that matter to them. Wherever possible members should be asked to participate in campaigns even if it is only by completing questionnaires or signing petitions, so that they feel involved. Success can be elusive, and unions can sometimes be reluctant to promote their own success where it is based on compromise. Even when times are hard, and unions do not achieve what they set out to; it is important to let workers know what the union has achieved.

As workers see that the union is listening to them, relevant to them in the workplace and fighting for the things they want, so they will trust the union more and be more likely to join and become active. Artem points out that: “the key is for unions to be more present in the workplace. This increases union visibility and membership engagement, vital to the recipe for union growth.” Essentially, workers need to believe that by joining the union, they make it more likely the union will achieve objectives they would benefit from. This approach should be part of the day-to-day work of the union, so that organising becomes integral to what the union does, not an add-on. Nevertheless, there will be times where the union undertakes specific campaigns both to organise targeted groups of workers and more generally in support of members. Targeting should be evidence based. Potential areas of growth can best be identified from comparing the existing membership with the numbers of workers employed.

Good communication is crucial

Agnieszka underlines that ‘communication is the keystone of organising. It must be a two-way process.’ The most effective communication is face to face and wherever possible it should come from someone the worker trusts, such as a work colleague. Experience has shown that ‘like recruits like’. So, for example, when trying to recruit young workers, the union is going to be more successful if it is younger activists who are doing the recruitment.

During the pandemic face to face communication has become much more difficult. It has accelerated the move to digital communication and highlighted the importance of social media. Unions are keen to embrace these new forms of communication. However, it should only ever be used to supplement face-to-face communication, where this is available.

There are three points to bear in mind:

  • Maintaining social media or other digital communication needs a lot of work. There is nothing worse than an out-of-date website or Facebook page. It leaves the impression the union is moribund. Responsibility for communication needs to be managed and several people should be actively involved in ensuring that content is produced and updated.
  • Communication should always be a two-way process. Members need to see that their views are being heard and acted on. Union successes must be widely publicised, even if they appear minor. It is surprising how often unions fail to do this.
  • Communicating with members digitally is likely to be easier using a centralised computer-based membership system with up-to-date contact information.

Communicating digitally with the wider workforce is more difficult. Face to face communication is vital, it can be supplemented by leaflets and posters, but generally it is more difficult to communicate with workers who are not members digitally. It is also important to encourage existing members to talk to other workers about the union. In some places, unions are invited to recruitment and   events.

This provides an excellent opportunity for recruitment as survey evidence (unpublished research by Unison) suggests workers are most likely to join the union in the first year or two of their employment. It is possible to use Facebook to try and talk to other workers. Advertising on Facebook can also be targeted at specific groups. Traditionally, unions have used the media to try and get their message across, and this should still be a vital part of any communication strategy.

Evaluation

There is no single ‘one size fits all’ approach to organising that suits every union. Using the broad principals identified above unions need to develop their own strategy, make sure that they follow through on it, evaluating its effectiveness at every step of the way. It is only by assessing what works and what does not that unions can develop an effective long-term organising strategy.

EPSU is now working closely with many of its affiliates in Central and Eastern Europe to address these key issues. However, they are also relevant to member organisations in other countries and EPSU is ensuring that all affiliates can join the debate through its recruitment and organising network and regular online seminars.

Greg Thomson

Former head of strategic organising for the Unison public services union in the UK.
Greg has a doctorate in industrial relations from the London School of Economic
and has been actively working on recruitment and organising for nearly 40 years.

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