While the conclusion is optimistic, the evaluation ‘isn’t all roses and sweetness and light’, as Paul Nowak of the TUC puts it at the OA blog. Some of the unions that have adopted the organising approach have shown impressive growth, but overall union density has remained ‘stubbornly stable’. Some of Holgate and Simms’ findings include:
- Seventy-one percent of OA graduates are still active in the union movement - half of them as organisers. Others have moved to politics, including one graduate who is now an MP. Some of the graduates who are active as organisers find they have to battle against a culture focused on servicing members rather than teaching them to self-organise. OA graduates maintain strong inter-union networks.
- Graduates value what they have learned at the OA, although they would have liked to learn a bit more about the broader strategic aspects of organising.
- Organising has remained a low-paid job with limited career options. Some may choose to move on to other positions, which may hamper the long-term perspective that is needed in organising work.
- TGWU (now merged into Unite) has developed a strategy informed by economic research that focuses on organising entire sectors rather than individual workplaces. It has trained 100 organisers and met its target of organising 10,000 new members per year.
- The GMB has chosen to integrate organising in the roles of all officers. To prevent this task ‘falling off the agenda’, all officers have to report on their organising activities as part of their evaluations. The union has decided that it is essential to consolidate its position in outsourced sectors such as catering and cleaning, after a period of rapid expansion.
- In the retail sector, USDAW offers lay activists a six-month training programme. During that period, the union pays their employer the equivalent of their wages, expecting activists to return to their original workplace after completion of the training. During the past four years, the union has grown from 310,000 to 340,000 members. This is impressive given the high turnover in the retail sector: the union has to recruit 80,000 new members per year just to keep its membership stable.
- There is an increasing awareness that unions need to be visible at the local level. Local councils are unable to do much organising work. “However, as the UK union movement consolidates into larger and more generalised unions, there may be greater potential and resource to establish union offices that can provide localised services to, as yet, non-unionised workers”. Holgate and Simms point to successful examples of local workers centres in the US.
Photo Rod Leon / Stronger Unions blog