LRD Booklets October 2005

Bargaining to organise - a guide for trade unionists


Increasing union membership and strengthening workplace organisation are perhaps the two key challenges facing trade unions. While membership of TUC-affiliated unions has stabilised at around six and a half million, they have not been able to increase membership in line with the overall increase in employment.

The recent government-sponsored Workplace Employment Relations Survey estimates that two thirds of UK workplaces have no union members, and that union members make up the majority of the workforce in only 18% of workplaces. Fourteen per cent of the workforce - around 3.5 million workers - are not union members despite being covered by union collective agreements.

Nationally, unions have been stepping up their organising activity and committing more resources to that side of their work.

Shopworkers' union USDAW, for example, puts over half a million pounds a year into its "organising academy", which in its first two years trained 33 reps in organising techniques. They have launched 200 organising campaigns and recruited 11,000 new members in that time.

The PCS civil service union has switched its emphasis to organising and recruitment over the last few years, and has grown by over 50,000 members since 1997.

And last year the T&G general union launched a massive drive, the 100% Membership Campaign. The union said: "We will refocus all our time, effort and resources on rebuilding T&G workplace organisation."

The union's planned merger with technical union Amicus and the GMB general union is based on agreement that organising will be at the heart of the new union, being allocated £20 million of resources per year - around 10% of the new union's income.

But while many unions are shifting resources and attention towards recruitment activities, it is not being seen merely as an exercise in increasing membership. Today's union organising is also about building sustainable unionisation - expanding the activity and capability of members, encouraging them and training them to take on negotiating or representative positions or active roles in a more limited capacity.

This is partly to free up union officers, organisers and full-time officials to spread out their supportive and back-up role,. However, it is also about ensuring that the union is constantly visible at the workplace, that there is always someone members can turn to for help.

The more visible the union, the more likely people are to join - and the more likely members are to stay in membership. It also means the union is in a better position to get results for its members.

This booklet aims to explain how branches, reps, officers, organisers and other activists can build up both membership and sustainable union organisation. This could be at their own workplace or at other workplaces they may be trying to organise. Each section contains examples and case studies of where such steps have already been taken.

Facilities and time off

The first section looks at how unions can negotiate with employers to secure agreements that provide for adequate time off and facilities to fulfil all their duties. This is not just about recruiting and organising staff, the more traditional reps' jobs still have to be done as well, such as handling grievances.

The section also considers other ways in which employers can enable the union to ensure it truly represents the staff.

The organising approach

The second section outlines the latest thinking on best practice for recruiting and organising at the workplace. While the main principles of successful recruiting never change - face-to-face discussion with potential members has always been the best way to sign them up - ensuring this actually happens methodically is another matter.

This section provides a step-by-step method of running comprehensive and sustainable campaigns, which create a strong union structure that can outlast any changes in personnel.

Extending the union voice

The final section looks at ways trade unionists in well organised workplaces can use that advantage to build union organisation in other linked workplaces. This could include, for example, public sector unions organising among contracted-out services, or unions in private firms who want to ensure all their suppliers are also unionised.

This kind of organising is partly about extending the reach of trade unionism, but it is also about avoiding a "race to the bottom" of workers' pay and conditions.