Labour Research September 2014


Roots of movement will survive

A unique Labour Research survey of union branches finds that the going is tough for local union organisation, especially in the public sector, but it is not inevitable that they will wilt in the current climate.

Local union branches are increasingly being seen by unions as key to ensuring the continued health of the movement. Union branches have always formed the link between the rank and file membership and the union’s body politic, and often between the members and their employers, but now they must also be recruiting, campaigning, representing and organising.

Both the UNISON public services union and GMB general union have established systems in recent years requiring each branch to have a formal plan setting out priorities for recruitment, representation, campaigning and organising for the coming year.

At its recent Congress, the GMB agreed tighter rules to deal with branches that are not active and functioning properly in this regard. Branches which are not recruiting, for example, will be investigated by their regional staff, and those who do not provide quarterly financial reports will not receive the next quarter’s payment.

The need for branches to be active, healthy and recruiting is particularly acute right now. UK-wide trade union membership is currently very finely balanced — having remained surprisingly resilient over the last few years. Government figures, published in June, showed membership had slipped by only 0.1% between 2012 and 2013, while more recent TUC figures reveal that membership of its affiliated unions has dipped by 1.2% between 2013 and 2014.

Labour Research Survey

Labour Research has carried out a survey of some 250 trade union branches spread across 18 unions to see what is happening to both their membership and their organisational health. It provides an idea of developments over the last two years as it follows a similar survey carried out in 2012.

In numerical terms, there have been winners and losers in the last two years. Just under third of branches have seen their membership rise in that period, with exactly the same proportion seeing membership decline and the rest saying they have stayed stable.

Branches with declining membership

Not surprisingly, given the ravages of the public sector in recent years, branches that are predominantly based in the public sector are more likely than those in the private sector to have seen a decline in membership — 37% in the public sector compared with 28% in the private sector.

This was illustrated by the government figures for 2012-13 which showed a 67,000 fall in union membership in the public sector coinciding with an increase of 61,000 members in the private sector.

The reasons given by branches for declining membership over the last two years are overwhelmingly related to job cuts. Sometimes budget cuts translate into membership losses by employers’ failure to replace leavers, by early retirement and even dismissals. Other losses are down to straightforward redundancies. This was the case for Unite’s East Dunbartonshire Council branch, whose convenor said their membership loss was down to “a reduction of 500 posts due to organisational restructuring twice within the last four years”.

Workers’ financial difficulties are another austerity-linked reason for members drifting out of their union — falling real pay can make union subscriptions seem like a dispensable luxury. One UNISON health branch said its membership decline stemmed from the loss of 200 staff to a newly formed organisation.

In addition, “members’ subscriptions have lapsed due to the process of merging organisations with a reluctance to re-join because of the affordability of subscription rates,” according to the branch’s response to the survey.

A Unite local authority and arms-length organisation branch put losses down to “large scale redundancies and members looking at their finances and leaving the union to save money towards increasing household costs”.

Several branches referred to pay cuts making union subs unaffordable, while one or two also referred to increased subs being the problem.

Branches with increasing membership

On the other side of the coin, largely in the private sector, membership in some areas is rising because of increasing employment. Unite’s WM/7319 branch says “more people are being employed”, while Pirelli N/W-8-335 branch simply refers to a “production increase”. The GMB’s Brownhills & Walsall Castings branch puts the rise down to “a general upturn in work” and the CWU’s North East branch says there have been “new workers [coming] into the company”.

Increases in private sector employment sometimes come about as a result of contracting-out of public services, with jobs switching from public to private sector. This can neutralise the effect of lost public sector jobs, as in the case of UNISON’s Institute of Education branch. It has lost members for financial reasons as well as redundancy and voluntary severance schemes among in-house staff. However, net branch membership has increased over the last two years because a large number of staff in sub-contractors have joined the union.

Nevertheless, UNISON East of England Ambulance Service branch also faces major threats from privatisation and lack of facility time to service new groups. However, it says: “We have seen the first increase in net membership since the AGM this year, compared to the past three years where we have seen a net loss. This is due to campaigning and being more visible to membership, as well as a change in the branch executive. We have also focused on encouraging new workplace representatives, and this will be central in maintaining and improving membership.”

Contracting-out or outsourcing can certainly cause organisational headaches for public sector branches. UNISON’s Nottingham City branch said: “The continuing fragmentation of the membership, as local authority services are slowly being outsourced and membership in the voluntary/private sector increases, makes it increasingly difficult to organise and represent across so many employers.” This is worsened by the fact that “facility time is restricted to the main employer — the local authority — and it has recently been reduced as part of the cuts”.

But an increase in membership is not necessarily dependent on employment growth, the survey finds. The proportion of public sector branches who say their numbers have increased is similar to that of the private sector: 32% against 34%.

It appears that, in a number of active public service-centred branches, worries about job loss and anger over worsening pay and conditions is actually fostering union recruitment. A number of university branches in particular note that major restructuring in their sector, which is causing concern over job security, as well as the pay dispute, are acting as triggers for new people to join the union.

However, for the fear and anger to be turned positive for unions, there has to be an active and visible branch in place. UNISON’s East Northants branch puts its membership rise down to “job insecurity and attacks on terms and conditions”, saying the branch has a “good reputation for representation, communication, strong sensible branch leadership [and] high visibility in the workplace”.

Similarly, the union’s London Borough of Hackney branch says it has put on members, even though “people are naturally anxious about their future working for the local authority.” But it says: “We are very active branch with a network of active reps across most sections. We have also been successful in representing members individually and more importantly are seen to win collective disputes.”

Recruitment and organising

Indeed, the most common reason given for membership increase is active recruitment and organising efforts by the branch. A lot of branches say they have been very active on recruitment, some also acknowledging the role of national recruitment drives.

UNISON’s Leeds and York Community Health Branch’s improved membership is down to “increased recruitment activity in the Branch plus recruitment initiatives across the union as a whole”. The GMB’s Manchester Central branch attracted new members through the GMB@Work strategy and regional Union Learning Fund work.

ASLEF’s Leeds branch membership has also risen due to “ongoing recruitment within the rail industry”.

Particular success is reported by Wiltshire and Swindon GMB, whose membership has been growing by 5% on average for several years. This is down to “good campaigning and old fashioned trade unionism,” said the branch secretary, adding that the branch has “been breaking ground into new private sector employers.”

Union officer posts

A pre-requisite for growing branches, it would seem, is a good level of organisational health, starting with a workable complement of officers.

The vast majority of branches responding to the survey do have the three key officer posts filled — secretary, chair or president and treasurer. However, even in this sample, which by definition probably represents better functioning branches — half of the branches have some unfilled posts. The most common missing position, ominously, is that of youth officer.

Indeed a third of branches say it has been harder to fill officer posts in the last two years, with only one in 14 (7%) saying posts have been easier to fill. However, this problem is not new, and these responses actually represent a slight improvement on the picture presented by the Labour Research survey carried out two years ago.

Attendance at branch meetings

In other measures of branch health, just under a third (30%) of branches say average attendance at branch meetings has declined in the last two years, compared with around one in eight (12%) saying it has increased. Just under three-quarters (74%) sent delegates to the union’s main conference at the last opportunity, while a third (33%) submitted motions to the conference. These figures indicate a very slight worsening of the situation indicated by the previous survey, but not a catastrophic decline.

Branch organisational health

The branches responding to the survey were asked for their own view of their organisational health, and a narrow majority (55%) feel their branch to be pretty active and healthy. This proportion is a little higher than that in 2012 when the proportion was 50%.

Predominantly private sector branches are rather more likely to say they are active and healthy than predominantly public sector ones, and branches whose officers have a role in negotiating pay are more likely to than those who do not. Having branch meetings at least once a month is also linked with branch health.

More clear-cut factors in determining branch health, according to the survey, are size and coverage in terms of number of employers: the larger the branch, the more likely it considers itself to be active and healthy, and also the more employers the branch covers, the more likely it is to be active and healthy.

Looking forward, rather more branches — almost two-thirds (62%) — feel they will be active and healthy over the next couple of years. This is especially true for larger branches, those predominantly based in the private sector, those with a negotiating role and those meeting once a month or more. And again, the more employers the branch covers, the more likely it is to feel it will be active and healthy going forward.

Branch mergers

The fact that larger, multi-employer branches feel healthier and are more optimistic about the next couple of years may present an argument in favour of branch mergers.

Mergers have been advocated in recent years by a number of unions at a national level as a way for branches not just to survive, but to be more active and make better use of resources. The GMB, for example, has agreed that, subject to certain conditions, branches with fewer than 20 members will be merged into other branches.

Among branches in the survey, around one in seven (15%) are the products of branch mergers over the last couple of years. However, it would seem there is no great appetite for further mergers: just one in eight (12%) suggest they might amalgamate with another branch in the next couple of years (or 14% of those who had not already merged in the last two years).

One which views its current merger positively is CWU’s Merseyside Amalgamated branch. It says: “We are entering into a merger with a sister branch that offers us new ideas and some younger activists. This with our industrial knowledge could well bring us on and help us be more relevant to our members and those we wish to recruit.”

Merger may be an answer for some, while there may be different answers for other branches facing difficulties. But the key requirement will be the supply of active trade unionists. The branch structure that makes the best use of available activists, and that finds a way to keep replenishing the activist stock, will be the one that endures.

How branches reach members

Email is the communication method of choice between branch and members, according to the Labour Research survey. The vast majority of branches (87%) use this method, making its use even more widespread than the traditional branch meeting used by 85%.

Its use is still more common than other electronic communications, although they are also increasingly being used. Nearly half of branches use a branch website and around a quarter (23%) communicate via social networking, up from 19% two years ago. One in five (20%) use texting, up from 14% two years ago, and 21% use Twitter (not asked in 2012).

Written communications are still used by almost two-thirds of branches (64%), but the figure is down from 74% in 2012, and 78% use notice boards (not asked before).

Three-quarters of branches use individual face-to-face communications, only slightly down on the 79% of two years ago.

However, email is still considered overall the most effective method for communications, along with face-to-contact where possible. As the branch administrator of the UCU university and college union at St Andrews University said: “Email reaches all members quickly with key messages/notification about meetings. Face-to-face is probably the most effective, but is labour intensive.”