Pensions strike boosts trade union recruitment
The Great Pensions Strike of 30 November 2011 has revealed an interesting finding — that government ministers’ pronouncements on their plans for public sector pensions and on union activity to defend pensions, have helped act as a recruiting sergeant for Britain’s unions.
The strike, the biggest in a generation, was called in protest at government proposals to make changes to public sector pension schemes, resulting in a “triple squeeze” on workers who would have to pay more and work longer for a lower pension.
And while union efforts and organisation played a critical role in ensuring an increase in membership during the strike and the build-up to the strike, unions have told Labour Research that government ministers were, unintentionally, particularly effective recruitment tools.
Thanks to statements from the likes of Danny Alexander, the chief secretary to the Treasury, who branded the strike a “distraction”, and education secretary Michael Gove who spoke of “militants, itching for a fight”, unions have seen a jump in membership levels as workers signed up to join.
And in the case of at least one of the unions, the dispute has reaped gains among some private sector workers, encouraging into its ranks workers from large companies, where pensions are also under threat.
Unions have also told Labour Research that the day of action and its build-up have had a hugely positive impact on union organisation. One, the ATL teaching union whose members have never taken national strike action before 2011, described the level of engagement and collective organisation around the strike as “unprecedented”, leading to “significant” gains in union organisation.
Some two million public service workers — including teachers, nurses, probation officers, civil servants, cleaners, paramedics and dinner ladies — took part in the TUC day of action, unions estimate.
Workers from 30 unions (23 of them affiliated to the TUC and seven non-affiliates) participated in the day, which included hundreds of marches and rallies in town and city centres across the UK and picket lines outside workplaces including schools and colleges, Jobcentres, town halls, libraries, hospitals and health clinics.
It followed earlier action in June, when members of the PCS civil service union, the NUT and ATL teaching unions and the lecturers’ UCU union went on strike over the planned changes.
In the days leading up to 30 November, the 1.1 million-member UNISON public services union highlighted how Danny Alexander proved himself a top recruiter for the union. “The applications to join spike every time Danny Alexander is on his feet in the House, talking about his plans for public sector pensions,” said the union’s general secretary Dave Prentis in a statement.
Prentis went on to reveal that a comparison of monthly figures showed that applications jumped a massive 126% since the result of the union’s ballot for strike action was announced.
And Labour Research found that UNISON has not been the only union to experience this effect.
With an overall membership level of around 122,000, the UCU university and college lecturers’ union reported that around 2,500 people joined the union in November 2011.
A spokesperson told Labour Research that in particular, Monday 28 November, the day education secretary Michael Gove made a speech to the conservative think tank Policy Exchange describing some union leaders as “militants, itching for a fight”, was “a bumper recruitment day” for the union.
The GMB general union said it had also recorded a significant increase in monthly recruitment at the end of November.
The union reported that 12,000 people joined in November and 8,000 in October 2011, compared to 7,000 and 6,000 respectively in the same months in 2010.
“These are normally quiet months for organising and recruitment,” GMB national organiser Martin Smith told Labour Research.
“The difference was made up almost entirely by staff in local government and the NHS joining up, although by far and away the single biggest occupational group were staff working in schools where many are affected not only by the pensions proposals, but job cuts and pay freezes as a result of academies.”
The union’s planning and organisation for the dispute included organisers visiting hundreds of school establishments in the build-up to the action. Nationally, it mailed every school several times with advice and guidance and an appeal to join up.
In addition, the GMB also saw a spike in new members joining from large private sector companies where pensions are also under threat. Smith said: “Despite the government’s efforts to divide public and private sector workers, we are finding that the pensions battle is also having an impact on recruitment in the private sector, particularly in large companies where final salary schemes still exist and are defendable.”
The country’s largest union, general union Unite, with around 250,000 members across the public sector, saw its public sector membership increase by more than 6,600 in the last six months of 2011.
The union’s assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, said: “What is interesting in these Unite figures is that this membership growth has come about when job losses in the public sector are mounting.” And, she said: “I think this reflects that, contrary to the myths being peddled by ministers, the trade union movement is properly representing working people in this country and is a beacon of resistance against a government hell-bent on imposing unsustainable austerity measures that is choking off the prospect of economic recovery.”
Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP)
The 36,000-member Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) said that the strike had a significant impact on its recruitment figures, with many long-standing non-members joining. The union is not known for industrial militancy — the 30 November strike represented only the second time in its 117-year history, and the first time since 1980, that union members have taken industrial action.
CSP assistant director for employment relations and union services Claire Sullivan said that during the campaign “we had lots of enquiries from people who had never felt the need or urge to join a trade union before but who wanted to participate in the industrial action”.
She pointed to a 15% membership increase among qualified physiotherapists at a time when it might have otherwise have been expected to drop because of job losses and the increase in unemployment among graduates. On associate membership — open to support workers and a range of assistant practitioners — the number of new joiners tripled in October and November.
For several unions taking part in the action, it was the first time that many members had voted to strike. For example, members of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) took national strike action for the first time in the union’s 114-year history. And it was the first time that members of the 160,000-member ATL had taken part in national strike action in its 127 years. The ATL also saw recruitment increase.
ATL head of recruitment and organisation Mark Holding said: “At the end of November 2011, membership was 5% higher than at the same time last year.”
Similarly, he said, in the two months leading up to the 30 June action, when balloting and preparations for strike action were being made, “we recruited twice as many new members than in the two months the previous year.
“In the month of November, in the run-up to the day of action, we recruited four times more new members than the previous November”.
He reported that it was the same story across all regions and among different groups of staff, including teachers, school support staff and those working in the post-16 sector.
According to Holding, the build-up to strike action also saw an increase in the level of activity of many school and college union representatives.
“They were organising meetings of members for the first time, coordinating lobbying activities, including lobbying MPs and in some cases inviting them to come into school,” he said.
“The level of engagement and collective organisation is unprecedented and has resulted in a significant organisational gain. It shows the central role played by union reps in the effectiveness of the union.”
The dispute was the first time that professional and managerial union Prospect had called a national strike in 30 years. With a total membership of around 123,400 it clocked up 1,111 new members in November — the best ever month for recruitment in the union’s history.
Another 77 members joined on the day of the strike itself, with union reps receiving applications on picket lines.
The November figure was up 88% on the previous month, itself substantially higher than the average for the year. There were more than 1,700 new members in October and November 2011, compared with 1,100 in the previous two months.
At Kew Gardens, membership of Prospect’s Royal Botanic Gardens branch increased from 151 on 1 October to 169 on 1 December 2011. Branch chair Phil Stevenson told Labour Research: “Strike action is pretty rare. Most members had not known strike action over the course of their membership — or in some cases in their lifetime.
“There was uncertainty about what it entailed on the part of members and also inexperience among managers.” So members of the branch executive committee produced and signed a local briefing with information set out in bullet points outlining the reasons for the strike and the rights of their members to take strike action, and reassuring people that they could not be victimised for taking action — the only consequence would be the loss of a day’s pay.
“This helped a lot in generating local momentum,” according to Stevenson. “The overriding message was that the union was there to support them.”
He also reported that in every location where the union did not have a rep before the strike, people came forward to help organise activities on the day, with more now coming forward to take on the role of union representative.
As Labour Research went to press, some unions had rejected the government’s “final offer” on a pensions deal, while other unions were committed to further talks.
Whatever the final outcome over public sector pensions, there is no doubting that the strike, its build-up and aftermath, have brought significant and positive gains around recruitment and organisation for the unions involved.
Striking out for pensions in the West Midlands
The West Midlands region of the UNISON public services union provides one example of the union drive for recruitment during the dispute.
Area organiser Lynn Horsnitt told Labour Research that the strike “has brought a lot of new activism into branches”.
The regional centre in Birmingham acted as a “pensions hub”, with four organising staff providing a walk-in service for the union’s “pensions champions” and other activists.
Each branch in the region had at least one pensions champion or contact, with two in the larger branches. Both experienced and new union activists came forward to take on this role — which aimed to ensure that members in every branch in the region had a point of contact with someone who was fully involved and up-to-date with the pensions dispute, and could answer members’ questions.
They also produced leaflets and other materials, including a newsletter and online information, and operated a phone line and e-mail question and answer service. In the run-up to the ballot, more than 640 new members were recruited over one 10-day period alone.
They organised hundreds of briefings across the region, with meetings across all the areas and service groups of the union.
For example, seven days before the strike ballot opened, the union’s annual health week focussed on the pensions issue, recruiting 315 student nurses during the week.
Horsnitt said: “A lot of the new members are younger workers and we are already seeing them getting more involved in their branches.”