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How can unions make a start on innovation?

On my way to TUC Congress this year, I went through our latest publication: “New Model Unions: Options for the 21st Century”. As I read on the train, one sentence stood out, resonating with me as it had done when the co-authors first sent the report over a few months before:

“When the winter of discontent came, the union only had summer clothes.”

Many of us will have seen the infamous ‘black run’ on membership where there was a dramatic drop in numbers following the election of Margaret Thatcher. When I go through those figures with our unions, I’m often deliberately provocative, not just looking at what was done to us, but challenging us to explore what we did or didn’t do to prevent the decline.

When we speak about the crisis within the trade union movement and the need for union mergers, we place a lot of the blame on Thatcher’s legacy. But what if this blame has hidden a systemic problem and that the fall in membership was one result of what happened 40 years ago, but was not necessarily the only inevitable outcome? And what if we take steps now to reverse the decline by rethinking our approach?

Our “Roadmap to Renewal” was Unions 21’s first look at a holistic way of addressing the problem of decline. This latest publication: “New Model Unions: Options for the 21st Century” is the next thought-provoking step.

The challenges for unions to innovate move from completely rethinking strategy priorities, to trying new ways to recruit and support members, to looking at staffing structures and workspaces, to managing change well. The work ahead is immense but exciting. John Forth, co-author of the paper, and Mathias Askholm from HK Lab in Denmark, discuss these challenges in our latest podcast and begin a month-long look by Unions 21 at how unions and other organisations have adapted their ways of working.

My key take-aways from the paper and podcast are:

We need to innovate

It matters how a union priorities its aims and activities, how it manages its resources and operates within a structure that meets the unions’ objectives. If the industrial environment changes, it’s inevitable that the strategy and approach will need to change too.

Work out what the problem really is

It’s tempting to think about innovation being all about the tech but we’re not going to solve problems just by creating an app or a new website. Innovation is more about understanding the challenges you have and looking for feasible, long-term solutions. The issue of recruiting and developing reps might be best suited to digital pathways, but the first question is what’s the barrier to finding and keeping reps, and then figuring out with the potential reps what could overcome those barriers. The answers could be varied and surprising; innovation for unions needs to start with working out the problems before working on anything else.

Don’t go big or go home

Sustainable innovation isn’t about putting the house on red and hoping to win. It’s about making decisions to change what you currently do, based on what you know or can find out about - say your members’ joining and leaving habits - and trying small ideas so that learning can be measured and adjustments can be made. Developing a culture which is about identifying issues and being open to adaption will be key to ensuring a union will survive.

Share the success

There are lots of unions from which to gain inspiration. Mathias Askholm talks about the interesting work from HK Lab but also I recently saw a presentation by the 3F in Denmark on their simple, yet effective organising platform. This interactive map allows branches to monitor their recruitment and retention levels, their activist base and how they are doing in collective agreements. More widely, the platform allows the union to deploy resources in an effective way.

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing innovations and ideas from our unions and from other relevant organisations. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and sign up to our newsletter to hear more.