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Union innovation during the pandemic: new research project



As the second wave of the pandemic hits the UK and unemployment rises steeply, excitable chat about the upsides of our ‘new normal’ has all but gone. COVID-19 has shown how long-established rules and ways of doing things can be swiftly overturned but it also holds up a mirror to the world as it is. It exposes decades-old flaws in the organisations and systems that shape our lives and show who needs support and is at risk of falling through the cracks. Nowhere is this more true than in our working lives.

This year has shown that in times of crisis, workers need unions more than ever. Throughout 2020 unions have continued their essential work to improve work by negotiating better pay and conditions, securing improvements to workplace safety, ensuring key workers get PPE, protecting the rights of homeworkers, and achieving significant outcomes like the introduction of the furlough scheme and COVID-safe workplace regulations. The challenges have been immense and are getting bigger.

But like all of us unions have had to adapt to the challenges caused by the pandemic. How have negotiations with employers and government taken place when sitting round the table isn’t possible? How have new members been recruited in closed or socially distanced workplaces? How have branch meetings and democratic processes taken place? And what are the many new issues that members have sought advice about as the pandemic has developed?

These questions are just some of the many questions that a new research project led by myself and Unions 21 will explore. We will investigate the responses by trade unions to the challenges that COVID-19 has thrown at their members and at the ways that unions represent, support and campaign for their members and reps.

If necessity is the mother of invention then where and how have unions invented new ways of working - and how they have innovated?

We’ll focus on 4 broad areas of union activity and seek to understand if and how changes have taken place:

  • Representation: during the pandemic, how have unions represented members, individually and collectively, with employers? How has advice been provided and on what issues?
  • Membership and engagement: how has membership changed? How have members joined and been recruited? How have unions kept in touch with members?
  • Advocacy: Have unions interacted directly with government and policymakers during the pandemic? If so, how and to what aim?
  • Activist development and democracy: what has been the impact of COVID-19 on the union’s democratic processes? How has training taken place and what’s been the impact on member participation in democratic processes?

Across all four areas we’ll explore if any changes are temporary or more long-term, and if the pandemic has accelerated anything that was already being planned or if it has forced a rethink.

In the first phase of the research we want to hear from staff who work for unions. If you work for a union please complete our short survey and tell us how the pandemic has affected your job and the union you work for, how union membership has changed, and about the impact of the pandemic on supporting, representing and engaging with members and reps.

But we also want to hear from members and reps directly. Are there examples of good practice and innovation in your union that we - and other unions - should know about? And are there things that haven’t worked so well? The aim is to identify and share success stories and lessons that other unions could learn from. Our focus is primarily on the UK but we’re keen to learn from unions around the world.

The survey includes contact details and further information about the project so please do get in touch and look out for more details as the project progresses.

Follow Tom @tomhunt100