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What’s the union plan for 2021?

It’s that time when, beyond a well-deserved break, our thoughts and aspirations turn to the year ahead.

It is especially tempting, as 2020 draws to a close, to draw a decisive line. In my opinion that would be the wrong thing to do, both because there’s a lot we’ve learned from how unions have adapted this year to the pandemic and because a lot of the issues we’ve grappled with in recent months will continue and some will intensify.

On a positive front, we all quickly transitioned to a largely remote working environment; several unions have increased membership and we’ve learned how to run branch meetings and engage with members online.

Contrary to some negative stereotypes, unions proved that we can change. But we have also confirmed that our core functions of representing members, negotiating on their behalf and campaigning for the industries they work in, remain central to what we do and why people join unions.

In 2020, out of pure necessity, we have done some of this work differently. Prospect, like many unions, has expanded digital reach, run successful webinars and forged new coalitions, for example in pursuit of a new deal for self-employed workers.

However, we’ve also learned that it is easier to maintain established relationships on-screen than it is to forge new ones; that there are limitations to remote influencing and negotiation, and that it’s harder to recruit new members when you can’t access them in person.

Crucially we know too that for whole swathes of workers the post-Covid work environment will not be the same as it was back last March.

There are significant challenges ahead: How will more permanent forms of blended work be managed and what are the implications for equality and diversity? Will Covid accelerate the march of automation and artificial intelligence? What will be the implications for data privacy and the right to disconnect?

Added to this are the global, national and regional challenges of climate change and the self-inflicted economic costs of Brexit. How do we ensure a just transition, not only for those workers whose employment is already at risk as a result of the drive to net zero emissions, but also for the many thousands whose jobs are threatened by the biggest recession of our lifetimes? Will new jobs be good jobs?

We have spent much of this year responding to health, social and economic crises. That’s been essential for the well-being of the members we represent, and the job is not yet done. Arguably though, the next phase – moving from firefighting and forced adaptation to securing and embedding ways of working that result in fair outcomes, will be even more difficult.

We often talk about lessons learned but in, in all honesty, we’re often immediately diverted to dealing with the next set of issues that arise. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring those immediate demands, but we must this time also genuinely take the opportunity to reflect, strengthen, innovate and renew.

That’s why Unions 21 will be starting the new year by launching an independent report on lessons from union innovation during Covid-19 and why, arising from that report, we’ll be supporting discussions on optimising union operating models for the changing world of work. There are some genuinely inspiring lessons from sister unions as far afield as Sweden and Australia, but also much to be gained from sharing experiences closer to home.

Sign up for the report launch on 14 January here