Pen is mightier than the picket: Unions are producing some striking journals and PR campaigns, says Helen Hague

Something remarkable has happened to trade union journals in recent years: some titles have become good reads for those not automatically enthralled by the intricacies of conference composite motions, badly laid-out branch resolutions, and the thoughts of the general secretary.

Although dullness has not been banished, the best union journals could now give titles selling on the news-stands a run for their money in holding readers' attention.

Julia Simpson, winning editor of this year's trade union journals contest, has a strict rubric: 'No podium shots.' Limp, out-of-date copy about delegation visits, and all-male line-ups of union officials are also banned.

Ms Simpson edits the UCW Journal, which is mailed direct to 160,000 postmen and women. It has to compete with the Royal Mail's highly effective PR machine, Ms Simpson explains. 'Royal Mail London employees receive four glossy publications a month through their letter-boxes.' But the journal is rising to the challenge, a hard-hitting article on rural post services scooping the best feature award. Judges said it 'would not have been out of place in a top Sunday colour magazine'.

The journal addresses the agenda of the Union of Communication Workers, but does not assume readers have any prior knowledge of the union, its policies, aims or history. Take the winning issue. Research showed that UCW members are mostly Sun/Mirror or Mail/Express readers. The union wanted to encourage members to attend an anti-racist rally. So it splashed with an action shot of the footballer John Fashanu and a meaty article, 'Boot Racism off the Pitch.' The GMB (the General Municipal, Boilermakers' and Allied Trades Union) puts a lot of effort into its stable of titles. Working Woman is left lying around in canteens in the hope it will be picked up by women who don't belong to the union but could be persuaded to join.

It is lively, with lots of colour pictures, snappy headlines and a freepost tear-off recruitment card. Features on domestic violence, and a human interest story highlighting the 400,000 women who are looking for work but don't show up in the jobless figures because they are married ('I Am Not Invisible'), picked up plaudits from the judges.

Phil Woolas, head of communications at the GMB, says 600 to 800 women per issue return the card to 'join the GMB and get your free copy of Working Woman'.

The union also publishes Issue, a mix of pop and politics for young members, and GMB Direct, a style- conscious magazine mailed to 'activists and opinion formers'. Mr Woolas says that readers' views on GMB Direct are revealing: 'The major reaction I get is, 'Isn't it good - it doesn't look like a trade union magazine.' It's meant as a compliment, but it's a comment on the low expectations people have of unions.'

The change in the journals is part of a broader attempt by unions to hone their presentational skills. The plunge in membership - from more than 12 million in 1979 to 7.3 million now - shows unions can no longer take their role for granted. The closed shop has been scrapped, and members who have their subscriptions deducted from the payroll are required to sign up every three years. So all but the most backward-looking or hard-up unions now have well-informed press officers ready to fax documents, get quotes or suggest stories.

There are other ways of getting the message across. Unison, which represents public service employees and is Britain's biggest union, has nearly 40 people in its communications office and spent pounds 1.25m on posters in the run-up to the local elections in May.

The union included a picture of two children, one brandishing a toy stethoscope above the caption, 'Let's play accountants and fund- holders.' The GMB, meanwhile, commissioned a giant inflatable Robert Maxwell to highlight its pensions campaign.

The Trades Union Congress has been slower than some of its member unions to revamp its press department. Last month, as part of the TUC's relaunch, the office was recast as the 'campaigns and communications department'.

When delegates leave Blackpool on Friday after the TUC conference, they will do so armed with information on debates and motions, and action briefings on topics from maternity rights and full employment to health and safety. A 'Top Tips for Campaigning' leaflet will also be given out.

John Healey, newly-appointed head of the restyled PR department, says: 'We have to be campaigning rather than purely reactive. We are beginning to see trade unions as an important voice on the business pages, the personal finance pages, the health page and even the lifestyle pages. It's not just about strikes and relations with the Labour Party.' This year, for the first time, the TUC's general secretary will be addressing fringe meetings at all three party conferences.

The irony is that while unions have become increasingly open, available and media friendly, the appetite of news editors for union stories - strikes apart - has waned dramatically since the days when teams of labour writers bashed out copy by the yard. Now some papers have even dispensed with labour specialists.

But if unions can weave themselves into the fabric of the media, rather than hogging the front pages with the latest strike bulletin, the new guard at Congress House will be more than happy.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Miracle muffin: chemicals can keep a muffin looking good at least a month after it was bought
food + drinkThe alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
News
business
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
An 'Einstein cross', just above the multicoloured cross, shows four spots of yellow light, where the light from a distant supernova is distorted by 'gravitational lensing'
science
Voices
A recent rise in net migration has been considered bad news for the Government
voicesYet when we talk about it, the national media goes into a frenzy, says Nigel Farage
Sport
Johnny Evans and Papiss Cisse come together
footballI don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
News
people
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
The beat is on: Alfred Doda, Gjevat Kelmendi and Orli Shuka in ‘Hyena’
filmReview: Hyena takes corruption and sleaziness to a truly epic level
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer / Front-End Designer - City of London

£27000 - £33000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End Devel...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger & Credit Control Assistant

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Ledger & Credit Control...

Recruitment Genius: Junior PHP Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Guru Careers: Front End Web Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: Our client help leading creative agencies ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable