As the government’s attacks mount, there is a growing debate among trade unionists about how workers can stop the cuts.
Many in the workers’ movement believe that the unions will need to build up a much higher membership before they will be strong enough to organise a successful fightback.
This turns the argument on its head. The best way to build the unions is by showing that being in one defends conditions.
Of course, it is true that we need to increase the number of people in the unions and that activists should be recruiting their workmates.
And we cannot wait for struggle to take place before we do that.
Powerful, collective organisation is the only thing that can stand up to the government assault everyone is facing.
Union members should use every possible method to recruit—from stalls outside workplaces, conversations with individuals, stunts that embarrass the bosses, and more.
These will all raise the profile and the membership of the union.
The key way to build the unions, however, is for the organisation to be at the forefront of defending workers’ rights and conditions. That is the crucial lesson from all the leaps in the unionisation of workers in Britain.
The period of the New Unionism and the Great Unrest between 1888 and 1918 saw trade union membership increase from 750,000 to 6.5 million.
The great struggles of the 1970s led to 13 million people being members of a trade union.
Involvement in struggle continues to boost the unions, on a local and national level.
The public sector union Unison saw its biggest growth in membership for years when it was part of organising the local government strike against attacks on pensions on 2 March 2006.
Its website reported, “All regions benefited from the increased activity building up to and during the day of action. March saw the highest monthly recruitment on record.
“The membership form was downloaded 22,232 times in March—more than four times the monthly average.
“Overall, figures for recruitment in local government during the first quarter of the year are a record 70 percent higher.”
A thousand people joined the Glasgow City branch, another 500 Leeds local government and 640 joined Wakefield branch.
Another good recent example of organising the unions comes from the private sector, at the Fujitsu Services IT company.
Management launched an attack on jobs, pay and pensions last year, which the Unite union campaigned against.
The union’s credibility had already been boosted by a dispute in Manchester in 2006 and 2007—but now it grew by a third.
Workers voted overwhelmingly for action and the IT industry’s first national strike took place at the end of last year. Other days of strikes followed, and the union and the firm came to an agreement earlier this year.
This took place in an industry that is not usually seen as a bastion of unionisation.
A fighting union doesn’t just see its membership rise, but the level of involvement also grows.
Lecturers in the UCU union at King’s College London struck over three days earlier this year against huge cuts. The UCU branch’s role in leading the resistance has meant that it has been the fastest growing branch in the union this year.
“But we haven’t just bulked up on members,” said Joel Dunn, a UCU committee member at the university. “Lots of previously passive members have felt more confident and that the union became more relevant to them.
“This means that attendance at meetings and involvement in the committee have both increased.
“Some people had felt that nothing could be done in the face of management attacks. But the more noise that the union made about it the more the members felt they could challenge the cuts.
“The action also rejuvenated the union at places where it was previously badly organised, with 14 people picketing one of these sites during a strike day.”
The action won major concessions from management.
Trade unionists should learn the lesson from these three examples.
The way to build the unions today is to prepare for serious battles with the employers—and use the full power of the membership when the fights begin.