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 Limp, out-of-date copy about delegation visits, and all-male line-ups of union officials are also banned.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.

Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

Sport
Andros Townsend is challenged by Vladimir Volkov
football
Arts and Entertainment
Rapper Jay Z performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury in 2008
musicSinger sued over use of the single-syllable sample in 'Run This Town'
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

Head of Marketing - London

£60000 - £85000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Interim Head of Marketing / Marketin...

IT Application Support Engineer - Immediate Start

£28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Software Application Support Analyst - Imm...

Digital Project Manager

£25 - 30k: Guru Careers: A Digital Project Manager is needed to join an exciti...

Paid Search Analyst / PPC Analyst

£24 - 28k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Paid Search Analyst / PPC...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week