I was talking to a friend the other night. Her job is disappearing. Fortunately, she is getting a decent-sized redundancy payment. I asked if she is a member of the union. ‘No, why would I be?’ Well, you only get that redundancy payment because the union won it in negotiations. ‘But I’m on an individual contract, that’s got nothing to do with the union’. Ah, but it does. You have no statutory right to redundancy payments if your job disappears. You only get it if you and/or your fellow workers won that right as a union. Labour was going to introduce a minimum redundancy right and prevent the use of pass-on as a union-breaking tactic, but 55,000 people thought it was time for a change. Employers often pass-on some of the gains won by unions to non-union members. On one hand that’s good because all workers at a workplace win from the successes of unionised workers. But, in the long run, it’s bad because it discourages union membership and encourage free-riding leading to lower unionisation in the workplace and, from that weaker bargaining position, smaller wins for the workers.
Something else my friend said caught my attention. When the redundancies were announced, a meeting was arranged with the workers and a union rep. Only one of the workers facing the possibility of redundancy was in the union. ‘The union rep said they couldn’t help us we an existing situation, so there was no point in me joining the union, they couldn’t help me’. Of course, I would have thought the lesson was not ‘unions are useless’ but ‘I should have joined the union when times were good, not expect help when things went bad’. However, the viewpoint my friend experienced is something the unions need to pay attention to.
It seems to me a lot of workers now see joining a union as purchasing a service, not being part of a group. Whereas the ‘traditional’ view of unions is that the workers are the union and, in the larger unions, they employ some professionals to represent their interests and help them organise, the increasingly common conception of the union among workers is that it is the small group of professionals that are the union, the members are just individuals hiring their services.
That’s a result of our increasingly individualised society and the top-down way in which some unions have been run. It has important ramifications for how unions need to approach workers. Non-unionised workers I speak to often report finding unions’ attempts to increase unionisation intimidatory. ‘They need to market themselves better’ To many in the unions that is anathema, it takes the soul and solidarity out of unionism and makes it just another product. However, if workers are changing, if they do perceive union membership as just buying a service, unions need to be responsive to that.
If they don’t, this disconnect between what workers want from unions and how union activists view themselves will continue to be a barrier to increasing unionisation. That will impede work right gains for all workers, unionised and non-unionised alike.