The event confirms what is a growing trend identified by Paul Willman, Professor of Industrial Relations at the London Business School. He reckons unions are becoming more businesslike, a move which dates back to the 1980s. Professor Willman, whose book Union Business* is launched next Thursday, explains: 'In the early years of the 1980s you had a generation of union leaders who had never seen anything but expansion. They came up from a system where nobody had said to them 'You are running a pounds 30m business.'
'They would maintain that they were running a union and a campaigning organisation. But one of the changes that has taken place in the 1980s is that the next generation has seen nothing but decline. They had to do what was financially and practically possible, rather than what was politically desirable.'
Managing that change has therefore gone to the top of the agenda for trade unions, particularly those serving members in public services be they in the public or the newly privatised sector. Following a report by consultants Klein and Co into the halving of the Transport and General Workers' Union's (TGWU) membership numbers to just over a million and a spiralling pounds 12m deficit, Bill Morris, general secretary, declared: 'Change is no longer an option for us - it is a necessary requirement for survival.' The TGWU, which has just 100,000 members in public services, is now - with a courage some argue born of desperation - taking action to remedy the problems Klein identified, such as weak management structures and poor handling of the management and development of personnel.
However, the TGWU's leading position will be toppled in July with the creation of Unison, boasting 1.4 million members from the merger of the public services unions Nalgo, Nupe and Cohse. The three partners, according to Alan Cave, management consultant at Kinsley Lord, have dealt with merger in a much more strategic way than other mergers, characterised in the past by a stronger union gobbling up another usually very weak and bankrupt union.
Mr Cave, formerly head of research at the GMB union, says: 'The Unison partners have done many things which as a management consultant I would advise organisations thinking of merger to do. They have been very businesslike about it.' He cites Unison's clearly set-out 'Aims and Objectives', in the final merger report, a kind of mission statement. They include wider work and community goals such as 'equal access for all to public services' and promoting 'greater employee, consumer and user involvement and representation in the delivery of public services' as well as the nitty gritty of promoting, safeguarding and improving 'the interests of members'.
Alan Jinkinson, Unison's first general secretary from July when it comes into being, reveals that the new union will also have a management-of-change unit, which he believes will be unique in the trade union movement. He says: 'It will provide strategic input and advice to the senior management team on the processes and implications of organisational development and evolution.' Part think-tank, part facilitator and doer, overseeing the strategic planning process, it will act like internal consultants.
In addition Mr Jinkinson, currently heading up Nalgo and once briefly an articled clerk to a firm of city accountants, says Unison will be giving its top team the sort of management development that Nalgo launched for its 26 most senior staff 18 months ago. It will, after all, have responsibility for managing a combined income of pounds 120m in 1993 / 1994, in a union that Mr Jinkinson promises will be member-centred and as non-bureaucratic as possible.
But while Unison is responding to greater competition for members by merger and the economies of scale that brings, others are testing novel solutions. The Institute of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS), covering staff in the Civil Service, government agencies and the privatised sector, has responded by creating a federation of unions. The idea was launched in December by Bill Brett, general secretary of the IPMS, 'to make sense of the unremitting pressures on resources that confront all unions'.
At the moment only two other unions have joined: the Society of Telecom Executives, with around 25,000 members, and the 17,000-strong Communication Managers Association, largely representing Post Office staff. But unions organising a further 427,900 members have been identified by the IPMS as possible joiners, with six expressing a positive interest. Under the federation, facilities like research, education and press have been pooled, with plans for further savings on accommodation, purchasing and membership systems.
However, while many unions, including the IPMS, have been managing a decline in membership, in a climate which they claim has been unremittingly hostile to trade unions, some public service unions have bucked the trend. The Royal College of Nursing, whose members do not strike and which is not affiliated to the TUC, has soared from 96,022 in 1972 to more than 298,000 this year.
While outside observers remark on the union's excellent information, including financial information systems, Christine Hancock, general secretary, puts the success down to a range of factors. They include annual surveys of the membership, the guarantee of a pounds 1m professional insurance, 24 hours a day round-the-world, good communications, and professional campaigning which has won nurses the right in principle to prescribe drugs.
At the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, another non-TUC union, there are some striking parallels. As the second-largest teaching union, it has just been recognised in the further education sector, breaking a monopoly of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education. It has more than doubled its membership as the overall number of teachers has gone down. In 1978, when it was called the Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association, it had 70,000 members; currently there are some 145,000.
Peter Smith, general secretary, says that among key factors in the rise is the fact that 'we run ourselves as a very efficient business'. The union appointed a commercial director from ICI last year, and has, in addition to 10 trouble-shooting case-workers, 40 teleworkers up and down the country operating from home to give a swift response that other unions seek to provide from expensive regional offices. Mr Smith says: 'I would not want to describe the 40 as the Marge Proops of the business, otherwise I would have a riot on my hands. But they do complement the case-workers.' He adds: 'We would like to think it is very flexible, responsive and cost-effective. Our aim is to turn as much membership income as we can into direct benefits for the members and to ensure that the bureaucracy can be kept to a minimum.'
Professor Willman gives his vote for the most business-efficient union in the public sector to the 59,000-strong Inland Revenue Staff Federation - the tax inspectors' union. He says it has always had qualified accountants; the general secretary, Clive Brooke, listens to financial advice; the union has regularly levied for specific tasks like computerisation; and most of all 'they hate debt'.
Many of the features that made for a financially secure union, however, are under threat as changes like agency status and human resource management techniques and local bargaining take effect. Professor Willman's conclusion is that bigger unions or federations have the best chance of survival because they can cross-subsidise their members like multi-service conglomerates. In sum: 'Bigger in some ways is horribly ugly, but it is more resilient to change.'
* Union Business (P Willman, T Morris and B Aston), from research funded by the Department of Employment, published by Cambridge University Press.