Today, our unions are irrelevant. Tomorrow, they could all be extinct

`We have not kept pace with the rapid changes in British industry, never mind the global economy'

Rory Murphy
Monday 13 September 1999 23:02

MY GENERATION of trade unionism has failed. When I started as a full-time official in 1979, the TUC had 13 million members; today we are down to about half of that. Seven out of 10 of the workforce do not belong to trade unions and 47 per cent of all workplaces have no union membership at all. It is simply the fact that trade unions must look for - and find - new ways of organising ourselves, new ways of delivering our service to members, new ways of relating to the companies we deal with, and a new role in society.

Today trade unionism is not attractive to those whom we need to recruit and represent. We are of little relevance to women, ethnic minorities and young people. We are largely perceived as conservative, and are no longer seen as the natural home for campaigning groups who are seeking to challenge the Establishment.

We have not kept pace with the rapid changes in British industry, never mind the global economy. Membership systems assume that workers have static full-time or part-time jobs, and allow for little variation beyond that. It is clear that we have to have a flexible set of membership categories and options that can serve and attract those who are homeworkers, temporary workers and contract workers, and those on zero-hours contracts.

Workers will support only something they perceive as beneficial to them, and thus we should radically rethink what the trade union member should be, and what the boundaries and role of trade unions are. If we are to attract and retain workers we need to move the focus from activists and mass meetings so that the genuine views of the workforce and members guide the union. As Tony Blair told the TUC, new ways need to be found of assessing members' views; new benefits need to be seen by its membership.

We need radically to change the relationship between trade unions and the individual, so that it's not necessary to contribute financially in order to belong. Trade unions need to move away from the old nine-to- five, male-dominated mindset. It is no longer a reality for those we represent.

Members, and those thinking about joining, should be able to access the union for advice, paying for the service as they need it. Advice should be available 24 hours per day, every day. If people believe they will get a quality service, they will join again.

And we must face the fact that trade union structures are part of the problem, rather than the solution. If we were building a new trade union structure it wouldn't be made up of branches and regions and endless committees. We need to be slim-line and flexible, to be able to adapt to the culture of change. We need to move away from the annual resolution-based conferences, as these are costly, slow and cumbersome, to something interactive and immediate.

We need to devolve sovereignty to the local level and focus on individualised membership services, and not to rely on the activist to interpret the wants of workers. This will mean flattening our hierarchies and conducting issue-based campaigns that have a rapid turn-around and response rate. This may entail outsourcing certain member services to those with special skills, increasing the authority and remit of the research and policy- making functions, and developing new recruitment strategies.

Unifi has welcomed the TUC's Millennial Challenge. It puts forward the common-sense view that inter-union rivalry and divided staff representation benefit no one but the employer. In other words there should, for example, be one union for public services, one union for transport, one union for manufacturing. Once we have achieved harmonisation in each sector, we can concentrate our energies on producing better-quality services to more people, more efficiently.

Unifi is the largest dedicated finance union in Western Europe and we believe that this will now lead to further mergers in the future. Indeed, industrial logic dictates such a move, as only a strong, united union movement can successfully meet the challenges of the 21st century and protect members' interests. But the finance sector still has in the region of 30 staff associations and unions, a figure that needs drastic trimming.

Super-unions are not just an expansionist policy to halt decline, but will produce a better service to members and, perhaps, to employers. We shall need to develop new relationships with employers and employees to take advantage of the new technology. Procedural and recognition agreements need to mirror, on the technological front, the access and representation arrangements that we currently have. The union must be able to display information through the company's intranet, or allow workers to gain access to Internet sites.

Unions must move from the production line to being online, creating and accessing delivery channels for union representation and access. We shall have to be able to offer all of our services online through the "virtual union", offering the ability to join online, get advice online - producing frequently asked questions, by topic and institution - offering services online, negotiating information to members and negotiators, and generally establishing a workplace presence through intranet and Internet sites.

We need to meet the demands of employees, who want 24-hour access, through delivery channels that they have access to, at times when they have access. We should run campaigns through e-mail and faxback, and offer free Internet access to our members, providing members with a CD-rom as part of their information pack, which makes their home page the union page, and contains details of services that we provide and information about employment rights.

We need to be able to provide information and interactivity however, wherever and whenever the member wants it. We should pursue this not just because it is the future of technology, but because it will produce better unions, and because, as Bill Gates has expressed it, Web technologies are the "ideal vehicle for building communities". The world of work has changed, while trade unionism has not and is not changing.

When we look back at the demise of trade unionism, which will happen in the next 10 years if we do not take action now, we shall see that the reason employees did not join unions and continued to leave, is because unions were not relevant. The task for us now is to turn around the failures of the last two decades and create unions that are attractive and efficient, with a suppleness that can cope with a rapidly changing world of work.

The writer is joint general secretary of Unifi, the banking union

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