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Exploring the relationship between organising and communications

As Unions21 and the #worksforus Collective Voice Commission has been exploring, the world of work is constantly changing, arguably with more pace than ever before with the advent of platform working, precarious contracts and increasing numbers of self-employed workers.

It's not a great leap of logic, therefore, to say the world of trade unions needs to change too, especially around how to organise and communicate with new groups of ‘atypical’ workers.

I’ve worked in education since the early 2000s, with the sector fairly stable for union activity until the Coalition Government brought Education Secretary Michael Gove and his break-up of state education as we knew it, allowing schools to leave local authority oversight, setting their own pay scales and reporting to Whitehall directly, albeit with most schools choosing to join Multi Academy Trust chains.

Within the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, we recognised the effects of this change early on: our negotiators were stretched by bargaining with significantly more employers; our case workers were swamped with TUPE and redundancy cases; our membership numbers lacked stability as teachers felt less confident being in a union while working in new MATs and more members were choosing to go part-time, take supply work or just leave the profession to avoid the pressures of workload.

Our answers were clear: as well as looking long term towards amalgamation with a sister union, we worked on a short term strategy to address our member and rep numbers by taking an integrated approach to organising, communications, policy and legal work and making sure our resources were focused on the issues which mattered most to members.

By understanding the areas causing our members most concern - identified through case work stats, policy debate, conversations in workplaces, social media interactions etc - we coordinated our organising and communications activity to focus on one or two key issues, using the same messaging, the same asks, delivered through many channels, at every opportunity, to demonstrate to members their voice was making a difference.

Our workload campaign, which included a workload tracker, provides a strong example of what I see as a virtuous circle of activity, starting with:

  • recruiting members by talking about the issue which mattered most and asking them to track their hours
  • retaining them through excellent support and advice to help themselves and their colleagues address their own workload and to talk to heads about school-based change
  • engaging them through CPD to become workplace reps or through policy development to take their voice to decision-makers
  • influencing change at school level and with Government which led to increased classroom effectiveness
  • celebrating members’ success through consistently messaged, multi-channel comms, thus encouraging further recruitment, retention and engagement.

While the workload campaign led to an increase in member numbers in some groups and an increase in reps, our thorough and segmented reporting and analysis of membership statistics revealed that our growth was not sustainable, and we took the strategic choice to move forward with amalgamation.

The more the world of work fragments, the more trade unions need to tighten our approach: know our landscape by analysing what we can access through case work, membership statistics, digital and social interactions etc; predict the impact of policy changes on our members and our resources; and then understand our members’ needs and willingness to ‘do something’ by engaging with them through every channel.

It’s hard to be focused when there’s so much for unions to undertake on behalf of members, but strategic choice means prioritising the activity which will bring external leverage and internal capacity. And more members means more income, more influence and more opportunity to extend the issues on which we can organise and communicate.

Hear Vic talking to Simon and Becky in more detail on this at through the Unions 21 podcast