Labour Research November 2012


State of the union branch

In the first of a two-part series on the union branch in 2012, Labour Research finds out how branches are faring and what affects their health.

At their core, branches constitute the system that allows grassroots members to direct how their union works and what it does. But branches also enable workers to organise themselves and influence their own working lives without relying on full-time union officials.

It is not surprising, therefore, that a number of national unions have been assessing their branch structures to ensure they provide the most conducive arrangements for individual members to become active — particularly in an era of sweeping industrial change.

In public services union UNISON, for example, the gradual restructuring of branches, which has existed since the union was formed in 1992, came into sharper focus with the arrival of the coalition government in May 2010.

The union’s national executive committee said this event meant it had to ensure it had “strong local union organisation able to respond to the major industrial threats that we face”.

It also had to “adjust to new employer structures and partnerships spanning the traditional ‘service group’ divides, and employers made newly independent of public authorities”.

While not being prescriptive about how branches should respond to these developments, UNISON set up a new scheme to encourage and enable branches to restructure themselves to “organise effectively public service workers in the public, community and private sectors”, recognising the new ways in which public services are delivered.

Labour Research survey of union branches

Labour Research has carried out a survey of 350 union branches spread across 15 unions to see how they are faring and what factors make for a healthy branch.

All branches taking part in the survey are “functioning” to the extent that they have at least one contact (almost always a branch officer) able to complete a questionnaire on behalf of the branch. Nevertheless, only half of them describe the branch as “active and healthy”. One in eight (13%) say it is not active and healthy, with the rest giving a neutral response. There is little difference between public and private sectors.

Virtually all the branches have a secretary in post and nearly all have a chair/president (although the survey was to some extent self-selecting on this issue, as branches without such officers would have been much less likely to respond). In addition, 94% had a treasurer.

However, the majority of branches have other officer posts which currently remain unfilled. For example, large numbers of branches have vacancies for officers covering equality issues and also for young members’ officers.

Branches that rely on full-time secondment from their employer to fill officer posts seem particularly likely to be squeezed. A city branch of UNISON, for example, spoke for a number of others in referring to “time off for stewards being attacked, full-time secondment of officers being reduced”.

Some were much more positive, however, like the Unite workplace branch which said: “We elected a complete new stewards’ committee last October … We now challenge management on all matters that concern our members. Our workplace branch is now vibrant and very proactive.”

Well over a third of branches (38%) say officer posts have become harder to fill in the last five years, and only 8% say they have become easier to fill. Just over half (55%) say the situation has not changed.

Despite the increased emphasis on organising and recruitment in recent times, only just over a third of the branches in the survey have seen an increase in their membership in the last five years. Another third have seen a decline while the one in three says membership has remained stable.

Branch structure not the key factor

So what types of branch are the most healthy? Is there a one-size-fits-all solution to this question of how to reinvigorate this level of the union movement?

A number of national unions suggest that the ideal form of branch is a workplace-based branch. The thinking is that this keeps the grassroots membership closely linked with administrative and policy-making aspects of the union and therefore more committed.

One such union is general union Unite which, since its formation from the merger of the old Amicus and T&G unions, has had as a principle that its branches should be workplace based as far as possible.

Where it is not, the union’s next preferred option is for branches to cover a locality, if possible comprising members in the locality working in the same industry. Unite has been implementing this principle through its regional structures since 2011, and is hoping to finish the process during this year.

Across the branches in the Labour Research survey, fewer than one in three (30%) currently consists of employees of a single employer. Just as many comprise members working for between two and five different employers (31%), while the most common form of branch (39% of those in the survey) covers more than five employers.

But the survey suggests that the composition of a branch — in terms of the number of employers covered by its membership — is not necessarily a key factor influencing its state of health. Just under half (49%) of single-employer branches say they are active and healthy — the same proportion as those covering more than five employers and slightly less than the proportion of those covering two to five employers (53%).

The survey also looked at whether branch health is influenced by whether officers have a role in negotiating pay and/or conditions. In almost two-thirds of branches, officers have a role in negotiating pay and/or conditions with employers. These branches are slightly more likely to be “active and healthy” than those who are not involved in such negotiating (52% say they are compared with 47%), although the difference is not overwhelming).

Branch mergers

A number of national unions are encouraging some of their branches to merge to help make them sustainable, with several responding to the survey indicating that they had recently merged. And almost one in five branches in the survey say they are likely to merge in the next couple of years. Branches covering more than five different employers are twice as likely to think they will merge as those with fewer than five (including single-employer branches).

While a few respondents are unhappy with the prospect of merger, most feel it to be a positive move.

For example, the South Wales branch of the CWU communication workers’ union said: “Officer roles will change when the branch merges, and I hope that this will bring new life to the branch and encourage more members to take an active part.”

And merging branches may be a sound policy, as the survey reveals that branch health is clearly influenced by the size of the branch in terms of membership.

Broadly speaking, the larger the branch, the more likely it is to be active and healthy.

While only a third of branches with fewer than 200 members consider themselves to be “active and healthy”, the proportion among branches with 2,000 or more members is double that — at two-thirds. And while 22% of branches with fewer than 200 members say they are inactive and unhealthy, this applies to just 8% of those with 2,000 members or more.

Expectations for the future

While the current picture of union branches is not overwhelmingly cheery, there are some small grounds for optimism for the future, with rather more branches feeling they will be active and healthy over the next couple of years than do so currently (58% compared with 50%).

Branches which are predominantly in the private sector are slightly more optimistic about future health than largely public sector ones. And, importantly, those with a negotiating role are more optimistic, with 62% saying they will be active and healthy compared with 51% of those without a negotiating role.

Single-employer branches are rather less optimistic than multi-employer ones: just 51% of single-employer branches say their future is active and healthy, compared with 60% of those covering two to five employers and 63% of those covering more than five employers.

Clearly the health of single-employer branches is more vulnerable as it is dependent on the fortunes of members working for just one employer. But the higher optimism of multi-employer branches may be as much about the size of the branch as the composition, as larger branches are significantly more likely than smaller ones to think they have a healthy future.

More than three quarters (76%) of those with 2,000 members or more say they will be active and healthy over the next couple of years compared with less than half (46%) of those with fewer than 500 members.

As the respondent from a large UNISON county branch said: “I feel that the bigger branches such as mine can continue under their own steam [but] many of our smaller borough branches that are struggling to keep membership figures up will end up being merged into other branches.”

While the circumstances of every branch will in the end be highly individual, it seems that, in the union movement at least, small is not necessarily beautiful.

Profile of union branches

Union branches come in all shapes and sizes, according to the Labour Research survey of 350 branches, although very few (13%) have fewer than 200 members.

More than one in five branches comprises 2,000 or more members. And most are multi-employer branches, with fewer than one in three (30%) consisting of employees of a single employer.

The most common form of branch (39% of those in the survey) comprises members working for more than five employers, while 31% cover between two and five different employers.

Typically a branch nowadays contains a mix of public and private sector members: only just over a quarter (27%) of branches solely comprise members in the public sector, while just one in six (17%) consists exclusively of members in the private sector.

A clearer picture emerges when looking at the number of branches which are dominated by one sector, in other words where at least 80% of members are in that sector. Six in 10 branches (59%) are public sector- dominated and 23% are private sector- dominated.

The voluntary/third sector still provides only a small contribution to union membership. Although one in three branches contains some members from this sector, in most cases this is less than 10%.

Almost two-thirds of branches say their officers have a role in negotiating pay and/or conditions with employers.

Perhaps surprisingly, the public sector-dominated branches in the survey are slightly more likely to have this role than predominantly private sector ones (68% compared with 60%).

A traditional measure of branch health and activity is the frequency and vibrancy of all-member branch meetings.

According to the survey, a typical branch holds meetings at least once a quarter, although more than one in three (35%) holds them less frequently than this.

In some cases general branch meetings are held only once or twice a year, but there are more regular meetings of the branch executive or committee.

For the vast majority of branches (85%), attendance at branch meetings averages less than one in five members.

In terms of branch functions in relation to the union as a whole, more than three quarters of branches (78%) sent delegates to the union’s main conference at the last opportunity.

Predominantly public sector branches are more likely than private sector ones to have sent delegates, and branches with a role in negotiating with employers are more likely to have sent them than those with no such role.

However, only 36% of branches overall submitted any motions to the last conference. Branches with a negotiating role are significantly less likely to have submitted motions than those that do not.

The larger the branch, the more likely they are to have sent delegates and submitted motions to conference.

Next month Labour Research looks at the traditional cornerstone of the branch — the branch meeting — and at what union branches are doing to make these attractive and relevant to their members.