A deep mood of pessimism seems to have struck the leaders of many of the big unions as they cast about for solutions to membership decline and financial crisis in their organisations.
Statements from the leaders of the three big unions (T&G, GMB, Amicus) presently discussing mergers have put forward essentially negative and defensive reasons for such a move.
Tony Woodley, leader of the T&G, talks openly about the “failure” of the unions to meet the individual aspirations of their members. Kevin Curran, leader of the GMB, argues that unions face oblivion unless they merge in the face of decline. Curran also faces a damaging inquiry into allegations of vote rigging and may be pushing the merger as a way to save his skin.
Little has been said to promote the benefits of a mega union for existing members and unorganised workers, beyond the platitudes of “bigger means stronger” and “economies of scale”.
But members of a number of recently merged unions know from bitter experience that these claimed benefits rarely materialise. Bigger unions tend to reinforce and centralise the power of unelected officials at the expense of local campaigning and organising.
Woodley claims a merged union will spend more on organising new workers, but there is little evidence that the creation of bigger and bigger bureaucracies makes unions more attractive to workers or responsive when workers seek help to organise.
The politics of this position seems to amount to nothing more than a belief in the mawkish Kevin Costner slogan “build it and they will come” from a long forgotten baseball film.
Cynics may take the view that Woodley and Curran are merely looking to pull off an old fashioned bureaucrat-led merger to create a union superstructure the TUC can more easily control on its behalf—while simultaneously shoring up their own pension position and knighthoods.
Socialists should tackle head-on the claim that a bigger union will automatically attract more members, and highlight Woodley and Curran’s essentially pessimistic view of working people’s desire to fight.
Socialists need to have a clear understanding of why workers join unions and, more significantly, why they don’t. Unless the merged union addresses these issues it is most likely to accelerate membership decline.
It has been said many times before that individual workers who find their way independently to a trade union and join up deserve not only a membership card but a gold medal for ingenuity and perseverance.
There are too many unionised workplaces where there is simply no obvious union profile and workers are left adrift with no clear idea what the union stands for or how to get involved. Imagine how much worse it is in the vast non-unionised sector.
Unions must develop a democratic structure based on the workplace, with workplace campaigning central to their activities. We need to give our members the confidence to set the agenda where they work—pushing the power and authority of the union out of the union office and into the workplace.
Unions must make sure workers in unorganised workplaces know how to contact us and can meet a union organiser off site when they need to.
Unions have tried many things to attract members in recent years—from producing fluffy toys, mouse mats, baseball caps and coffee cups, through stalls at music festivals, to expensive advertising campaigns.
Meanwhile the workers these stunts are aimed at suffer low pay, long hours and dangerous conditions. It should come as no surprise that workers react to such gimmicks with contempt.
Workers should expect the union to fit itself around their demands and aspirations.
Many problems faced by workers—such as the vicious circle of long hours and low pay, cultures of bullying, harassment, racism and sex discrimination— have been a long time in the making. They need medium and long term action by workers within the union to tackle them.
Asking workers to join a union out of context to the daily problems they face, and then branding them “apathetic” when they fail to sign up is an insult that does us great damage.
So the Woodley, Simpson and Curran plan for a super union should be judged on whether it will create a culture of workplace organisation where members are given the power to organise and campaign in the workplace on their issues.
We need to demand to know if they will allow people in the union at all levels to say yes to workers who want to organise and stand up to their bosses.
Critically we need to demand that the new union rejects the marketing and business culture some want to impose and which alienates so many workers.
A merged union will get the support of members in the T&G, GMB and Amicus if, and only if, Woodley, Curran and Simpson can convince us that they are genuine about building one massive fighting union that doesn’t just want to protect what members have got but will fight to get them more.