Maintaining the branch meeting
A Labour Research survey of 350 union branches across 15 different unions published in our November issue showed how branches’ structures are evolving to maintain their role as the key link between members and their unions.
As well as adapting their structure, the survey reveals that branch activists are working ever harder to attract members’ interest and get them to participate in branch activity.
Communicating with members
Good communications between branch officers and union members is key to keeping branch meetings well attended and activity high. The Labour Research survey looked at what communications methods branches use these days and which they find most successful.
In a clear sign of the times, the most common communications method used by branches now is email, with 91% saying they use this — even more than say they communicate through branch meetings (81%). A little under half (46%) use a branch website, 19% use social networking and 14% use text.
However, face-to-face communications are still widespread – used by eight in 10 branches, as are paper communications, used by 74%. Other methods used are notice boards and telephone communications, although more modern methods include intranet and blogs.
Phone apps are not yet in use (although a Unite branch plans to pilot this), but one NUT branch uses “collaborative cloud networks”.
Branches were asked what communications are most successful in generating a response from members.
While all methods clearly have their place in different contexts, the stand-out response to this question is email, with the traditional paper communications and branch meetings barely mentioned as the most effective methods of communication. And email is considered the most successful, regardless of whether the branch is a single-employer branch or comprises members from several employers.
As the Ministry of Justice HQ branch of the PCS civil service union says, email “reaches more people”. Email’s provision of distribution groups and voting buttons are useful to some branches.
Some still prefer face-to-face communications, which communications union CWU Leeds No. 1 branch says “affords the members the opportunity to engage with us and get an immediate response”.
However, others favouring this method point out the limitations, saying it is time consuming or, in the words of the Taunton Deane branch of the UNISON public services union, “often difficult especially with outsourced staff or part-time workers”.
Attendance levels at meetings holding up
The traditional cornerstone of branch activity is the branch meeting. But has it become lost in an era of Facebook and video conferencing?
It appears not. According to our survey, the branch meeting is holding up, even in these days of social networking and mobile phone apps, although these media are also increasingly being exploited. Virtually all branches in the survey still hold branch meetings, two-thirds of them having meetings at least once every three months.
The problem is, these meetings are generally attended by only a small proportion of members — usually fewer than one in five.
Only 11 branches out of the 350 — or 3% — generally saw half of the members turn up. Average attendance tends to be even lower in larger branches.
However, this is a long-term problem and it is not the case that attendance at branch meetings is suddenly collapsing. Although just over a quarter of branches say attendance has deteriorated over the past five years, the majority say it has either stayed about the same (59%) or has increased (14%).
This is possibly to do with the fact that many of them are adapting their meetings to make them more attractive and relevant to members.
Standard union business off-putting
For example, several branches are acknowledging that a lot of standard union business is off-putting to members. As public service union UNISON’s West Devon branch points out: “Meetings that are mainly administrative are very dull and old-fashioned to most people.”
To deal with this, a number of branches try to restrict much of their standard business to meetings of the branch committee or executive, usually meeting quite regularly.
They then hold separate open meetings for all members perhaps once or twice a year with more interesting content. The SEGON UK Service branch of general union Unite, for example, says members do not usually attend normal monthly branch meetings. But it adds: “We do hold open member meetings about specific topics as needed, and these are very well attended.”
What makes for successful meetings?
Many branches in the survey have indeed held very successful meetings in the last year or so. Their reports indicate some themes that make for successful branch meetings:
• members’ concern over management actions, such as changes in terms and conditions or poor treatment of staff;
• guest speakers, either from the national union or from outside the union; and
• incorporating a social or fun element into the meeting.
Issues of importance to members
The big issue that has buoyed up meetings over the past year or so in many branches — particularly those with a public sector membership — has been the strikes over public sector pensions.
The respondent from the Saughton branch of the PCS civil service union said: “PCS is involved in an ongoing campaign of industrial action against the looting of our pensions by the government, and we have held regular meetings in connection with strike days. Turnout for strike meetings is always good.”
The Fire Service College branch of the Prospect specialists’ union said the topic was “very relevant to members and people had questions to answer prior to taking part in industrial action”.
And for the NUT teaching union’s Cambridgeshire branch, a discussion on strike action over pensions “was the biggest meeting of the year”.
Attacks from government have served to rejuvenate meetings for a number of branches. Bury NUT branch says attendance at its meetings had been in decline but had picked up over the last year largely due to the pensions dispute.
And the PCS North Staffordshire branch for the Department for Work and Pensions also said branch attendance has increased because of government attacks. Another PCS branch spoke for many when it said its best meeting was because “members were angry at the attacks on the Civil Service Compensation Scheme, their pension scheme and the pay freeze. They were eager to take industrial action and wanted to know when this would happen.”
Other pay and conditions issues also get branch members going. Unite’s wm/634 branch said their trigger for lively branch meetings was a dispute against termination of contracts and re-engagement on poorer terms and pay.
And the busiest meeting for public service union UNISON’s Hackney Local Government branch in the last couple of years was when the council was attempting to reduce redundancy benefits. The meeting attracted around 500 members and resulted in management withdrawing the proposals.
Another issue which raises interest in branch meetings is poor treatment of individuals by management. The respondent from the South Wales branch of the CWU communications union said: “The biggest meeting we’ve ever had was one where members were calling for industrial action over treatment of members at work.” Portsmouth branch of the RMT transport union showed its strength at a branch meeting over a dismissed member, with the result that he was reinstated and compensated.
As another branch secretary of the Unite union pointed out: “We generally find that the well attended meetings are always when there are contentious issues within the workplace.”
Attendance at such meetings is often further augmented by having guest speakers. Many union branches say the presence of their regional or general secretary, for example, has boosted attendance, again particularly during the pensions dispute.
And for a number of branches, guest speakers from outside the union have also been a draw. CWU Leeds No. 1 branch said: “We have changed the format of our AGM; we now have a guest speaker from outside our industry to speak alongside one of our own. It appears to have rekindled interest.”
Unite’s Clerkenwell and St Pancras branch has generated interest through inviting speakers from Occupy London and also an expert on employment law changes, while GMB Durham General branch has hosted Families Against Corporate Killing, the local MEP and MP, the regional TUC, union solicitors and the Health and Safety Executive. Unite Dagenham branch held a local MPs’ “Question Time”.
However, industrial conflict and high-quality speakers are not the only generators of branch members’ interest. So is fun. The lively Durham General branch of the GMB general union says: “The best meeting was a trade union quiz, which everyone enjoyed.”
It has also shown a trade union film, while other branches have lured members in by holding a raffle, organising a boat trip along the Thames and holding the meeting in a theatre then giving attendees free entry to a performance after the meeting.
Food is frequently cited as an attraction to meetings, as the Bradford and District branch of the NUT teaching union indicates. “We meet in a curry house and have a free meal following the meeting,” it says. Meanwhile, the GMB’s Milton Keynes City branch offers members who attend six branch meetings in the year a free Christmas dinner.
“Always provide food!” says UNISON’s Reigate and Banstead branch.
There was too many interesting comments from union activists to include in this article. See www.lrd.org.uk/db/downloads/branchmeeting.pdf for more.