Learning from the union model

When thinking about strategy for progressive movements, is interesting to compare the recruitment methods of trade unions versus left-wing groups. It is a useful comparison both because it is clear that quite different approaches are adopted, and because unions are still a significant force in British society. While their membership has been gradually declining since the year of Thatcher’s election, they still have around seven million members, or 28% of the workforce.[1] So they must be doing something right.

Now, consider trade union organizing. If you are a shop steward in a workplace and you are attempting to recruit new members, what approach do you adopt? What is taught on courses for trade union organizers, and seems intuitive for any shop-steward, is that you stress how the union can tackle the immediate problems facing those potential members.

Surveys have shown that while people give many different reasons for joining unions, primary among them are the prospect of better pay and conditions, increased job security, legal representation, collective bargaining, and mutual support. Sometimes it might simply be because "everyone else is a member", or because they come from a family in which being a member of a union is taken as a given. It can even be fringe benefits available through a union.

Another major factor in increasing the rate of union membership is industrial action: unions notice an upturn in recruitment where strikes, work-to-rules, or mandatory meetings are about to happen or are already taking place.

Two things are clear from this. First, people join unions because they represent workers’ immediate interests, they form a basis for collective action, and can improve members’ day-to-day lives. There is also the influence of "culture": people are more likely to join if their colleagues are members. Second, when these organizations are active and prove themselves to be fighting hard for workers’ interests, they attract more members.

Of course, unions are also active on the political scene. They are part of global federations, provide solidarity to trade unionists under repressive regimes, they might be involved in anti-war and anti-racist campaigns, international solidarity work, and many more causes besides. These are an important part of unions’ work, and they can have a significant impact. But they are only made possible because of fundamental ground work that is put in by union shop-stewards in representing the immediate needs of members. This alone permits the organizational framework to be able to be effective in large-scale political campaigns.

Few shop-stewards would attempt a recruitment strategy based on a union’s national political positions, or its international campaign work. They instead stress the immediate benefits and possibilities that come through the union in its workplace unit and through solidarity with workers elsewhere. Everything else must flow from that.

Now consider the recruitment strategies of most Left groups. A major focus of most Left groupings is around precisely the international and national political work just mentioned, whether that is anti-war campaigning, international solidarity groups, trade justice, civil liberties, climate change, or global capitalist gatherings like the G20.

Of course, many people care passionately about these issues; they are hugely important and urgently need to be addressed by a strong, articulate progressive movement. However, they cannot be a basis for mass recruitment to Left groups. Surveys of the issues that matter most to working class people consistently produce similar results: health, education, crime, the economy, and, in Britain, immigration, usually figure near the top of the pile. International issues figure way down in people’s list of priorities. For example, an Ipsos-Mori poll last summer found just 6% would take Iraq into consideration at the next General Election, while only 3% would consider British foreign policy.[2]

Like a workplace organizer trying to recruit members primarily on the basis of a union’s work in solidarity with Cuba, the priorities of the Left doom it to marginalization. On the other hand, the example of trade unionists who win members by fighting for their colleagues’ immediate interests and then support such international work through their union’s structures, shows an alternative option that is readily available to the Left. That is, begin to address those core concerns of ordinary people, prove ourselves the best fighters for their interests, and begin to build new structures to take on bigger issues.

We accept almost unthinkingly the logic of union organizing, but do not apply the same lessons to our political work. Perhaps it is time we did so.





Left Luggage is a blog formed by a small, independent group of community organisers and trade union shop-stewards in the UK. It is an attempt to initiate a discussion within the British Left around strategic issues, including questioning some of our most fundamental organising principles. www.theleftluggage.wordpress.com

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