Over the past decades, British unions have struggled with the impact of Thatcherism. Between 1979 and 1996, union membership dropped from 13.3 million to 7.2 million. In 1998, union confederation TUC launched the Organising Academy, a training institute for organisers. At the individual level, organisers proved very successful at recruiting new members. Nationally, membership decline has slowed down, although it didn’t stop.
In a new book called Union Voices, a group of academics summarize years of research on the Organising Academy. The launch of this institute was quite a remarkable initiative. Previously, the TUC had been involved mainly in forming policies based on consensus among its member unions. Now, it took the initiative to ‘shake up’ the union movement.
The authors of Union Voices argue that organizing outcomes should be evaluated not just against the formal objectives, but ‘against a wider view of the changes that unions should make in order to (re)establish their roles as strong, independent voices of working people’. They find that individual campaigns have been very successful at recruiting new members, but that it has proven difficult to strengthen the position of workers in new sectors.
In part, this can be explained by the sometimes very aggressive responses by employers. In one-fifth of ‘greenfield’ campaigns (campaigns in sectors where unions have no established position), employers used antiunion consultants. For example, T-Mobile and Amazon used the Burke Group from the US. “These were classic unionbusting campaigns that were costly, sophisticated, and effective.” In other cases, UK-based consultants were provided by law firms or employers’ organisations. Their approach to union busting is less sophisticated and sometimes even counterproductive.
Internal factors also influence the outcome of organising efforts. While the TUC trains the organisers, it is up to individual unions how to use them. Unite has launched a number of successful large-scale organising campaigns in sectors like poultry, low-cost airlines and cleaning. However, it appears that these large-scale, well-resourced strategic campaigns were not the rule. More often, organising efforts would last a few months rather than years, and consist of a small number of organisers working rather independently of the officers who do the collective bargaining.
The evaluation suggests that the character of the organising efforts has something to do with the position of the TUC. As an umbrella organisation, it cannot tell affiliated unions how to run their organising campaigns. Therefore, it’s understandable that it didn’t present organising as a coherent model to be used strategically, but rather as a ‘toolbox’ of techniques to be used at will.
In the Netherlands, it has been considered to create something like the Organising Academy at the confederation level (in fact, we visited the Organising Academy in 2005), but the idea never took off. Instead, private sector union FNV Bondgenoten developed its organising activities in the cleaning sector into a broader organising programme, and public sector union Abvakabo FNV also launched an organising programme. There have been successful campaigns, for example in cleaning and in some of the nursing homes (despite highly aggressive responses from health care employers). The challenge is now to translate this into a broader effort to help workers across the economy stand up and strenghten their position.