Our members in public and private sector alike are facing an onslaught on their public services, jobs, pay, pensions and conditions, as government and employers attempt to make working people pay for a bailout of the banks which rescued the city parasites but didn’t prevent mass redundancies amongst finance workers.
The urgent need for a more powerful union to enable members to successfully protect their livelihoods has never been clearer. The debate about UNITE’s organising strategy is about how we achieve this. Below, Jerry Hicks sets out his contribution to the debate.
Some put the emphasis on the “service” that the union provides to members. While of course the union organisation could do better at supporting members, this approach misses the point. The union is NOT a business providing a service to clients for a fee. This “servicing model” for unions proved disastrous in the 1980s.
Fundamentally, the union IS the membership, not the buildings and bank accounts, nor the officers, staff and organisers we employ.
No matter how committed and skilled they are, the idea that reps, officers and the legal department can sort everything out on behalf of members is a dangerous illusion. Their primary role must be to help members deal with the issues themselves – this is the “organising model”. It is about building strong and effective union organisation at workplace level and beyond, not primarily about getting people to fill in Direct Debit forms.
The shift in recent years towards an organising approach has delivered some impressive results whether you measure it in terms of recruitment of members, new reps, new recognition agreements, revitalised workplaces or successful campaigns over workplace issues. But there is still an awful long way to go in changing the culture of our union.
Weak workplace organisation leaves officers running around dealing with individual cases due to the absence of trained and confident reps. Most activists and officers spend most of their time reacting to what employers throw at us, rather than organising so that we can plan ahead and take the initiative.
We need to:
1. Continue to have a dedicated Organising Department – we need this focus in order to change the culture of the whole union
2. Increase the resources for organising. The current leadership of UNITE is breaking the union’s own rulebook by allocating less than 5% of subs income to organising, never mind reaching the 10% target set at the time of the merger. Recognise that the bulk of the work in the union will always rely on committed activists. Organising works, but we will never have the resources to employ enough organisers to unionise all the places our members work. We should build a network of activists (including those who are unemployed and retired) in every area who are willing to help with campaigns – this could increase our organising resources at a stroke.
3. Cut bureaucracy and encourage lay member participation by putting more resources nearer to the members, in Branches, Area Activist Committees, and Sector Committees.
4. Improve the morale of our organisers by recognising that their job is a creative one. Of course we need accountability, but micro-management is stifling.
5. Spread the ideas around organising and strengthen accountability to lay members by introducing proper reporting and decision-making on both strategic organising and the 100% campaign through area, regional and sector structures .
6. Encourage participation from a wider range of members, especially young people, by dropping the pretence that “politics” is only for Party members. Use the organising approach to involve more people in campaigns over issues such as racism, fascism, war, Palestine and climate change, as well as to build support and solidarity across the union when groups of members are in dispute. This can educate our members and strengthen our workplace organisation, as well as increasing our impact in the wider movement.
7. Publicise the successes we achieve through organising and campaigning. Nothing catches on as quickly as success.
Some might argue that this agenda is unaffordable. But the alternative, continuing to “manage decline”, will cost our members and the union itself dear. This is a question of priorities. Do we need so many General Secretaries (Joint, Deputy and Assistant)? Do we really need to pay them so much? Did we really need such an extravagant party at Old Trafford for a Policy Conference? There are many other areas of spending that are useful or popular, but can’t possibly be as high a priority as rebuilding union strength so that members can successfully defend their livelihoods.
This election offers members a choice over the priorities and future direction of our union. I don’t stand for “more of the same” or “less of the same”. As the only candidate from outside the existing leadership of UNITE, I am arguing that members need a big change if UNITE is going to respond effectively to the attacks from the Tories, their Liberal Democrat collaborators, and our employers.