Becky Wright, Executive Director / 4 July 2019
When the UK first started talking about organising and becoming organising unions, there seemed to be two overarching ideas - firstly that there would be lots of different definitions and that would be fine but, secondly, whatever definition, we could see how it would be a key part of our Anglo-Saxon model of industrial relations. With nearly 20 years experience of doing the job of organising, teaching unions how to organise and now trying to innovate within organising, I can tell you that I am unconvinced of both these points. Why is that?
Primarily, I’m unconvinced because I have the view that organising is about building a strong union. Organising underpins the union rather than being an activity that runs alongside other activities. To help explain this at all levels of the union, I explain that building a union is akin to building a house.
So, like all houses, you have to start at the bottom, and lay your foundations, starting with your members - without them the house cannot be built.
In reality, when we talk about members, we mean recruitment and retention. You cannot profess to be the voice of an industry if you have no workers from that industry in your union, and you cannot reflect the needs and wishes of the workforce if you don’t have members who can articulate their issues. Therefore, asking members to join and stay must be integrated into every union activity and not just devolved to special times and to specific colleagues.
Back to the house, which needs walls. The first wall is your activists. We need active members because they are the everyday ambassadors of the union. Every comms expert will tell you that face-to-face is the most powerful means of engaging people. In fact, our research on young professional workers backs this up. Activists provide the face of the union, by which current and potential members judge the relevancy of the union, through which members see themselves and their needs reflected.
The next wall is active engagement - constant and effective communication and dialogue through all layers of the union, reflecting members’ opinions and needs, and sharing with members the information that support their working lives.
Lastly we have the roof - the outcomes from bargaining and from campaigns. It’s here that we see the union is working and delivering on the issues that members care about the most.
This concept of a house puts the member experience at the very heart of the union - from the foundations of recruiting and retaining members, to walls of the engagement of members into activism and the communication throughout the union, to the roof which celebrates what members have achieved together.
What it also does is challenge us to constantly ask: “How does my piece of work build and sustain our house? Do the activities of our union lay strong enough foundations? Do they make us lopsided or lacking the protection of a roof? Do we have a basic structure but it’s rather weak and can be blown over?”
Unions which are successful are either consciously or subconsciously reviewing themselves, attending to all aspects of their house and not just one bit at one time. And this is what you see in unions which are highly successful, putting the member first, grounding the member experience in the union. The more relevant a union is to its members’ needs, the more they will recruit and retain, the more they will secure engagement and achieve change.
So how should we review ourselves? Effective house building and maintenance requires a vision, a strategy and a plan, effective resource deployment, cross-team agile working, time for reflection and flexibility to adapt.
This is why having a union with 100 different ideas on what organising is, will not result in successful organising. At the same time, you can’t think that organising is just for the Anglo-Saxon models of industrial relations - you can make your house stronger even when you enjoy a friendly government, have great access or institutional mechanisms that give you a place at the table.
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