Friday, 14 November 2008

Economic Depression: A Good Time to Organise?


As I went to write this post on the severity of BT’s decision yesterday to shed 10,000 jobs I read the news that this morning RBS has also announced job looses of around 3,000 staff.

There is very little room for optimism currently in the UK economy as unemployment figures increase to levels not seen since prior to 1997 and where even the Bank of England’s interest rate cut appears to have made no significant dent in consumer confidence. Similarly, trade unions I work with appear to be approaching next year’s pay bargaining round in readiness for battle.

But, does the long-term impact of an emerging period of economic depression necessarily mean a bad thing for the UK trade union movement?

When I read the various responses from the range of trade union spokespeople responding to the announcements of job losses invariably they spoke in a traditionally reactive manner and arguably appeared to many workers listening as simply trying to ensure that the transition to unemployment went as smoothly as possible.

In this context it’s possible that trade unions appear as valueless but in truth we would know that because of union membership workers are assured, for example, fairness in the process of selection for redundancy and are potentially in receipt of an enhanced redundancy payment as a result of prior negotiation of a settlement at a higher rather than the statutory minimum.

Even in the current economic gloom I would argue therefore, that trade unions must raise their profile and argue that, regardless of sector or job, there is no better time to join a trade union and organise to defend your job.

I can hear some of you saying ‘easier said than done’. However, if trade union membership isn't seen as relevant or credible at a time of significant economic crisis and worry for mainstream members, and particularly non-members, why would it be seen as relevant and credible at any other time?

As usual, responses, comments or (constructive) criticism welcome.




Jaswant said...

Hello Ian,

What I was thinking as I read your piece was that although I can understand the point you are making you neglected to consider the actual cost of a subscription.

For my members as you know it is always a struggle to convince people to either stay in membership or join as the £11 they pay a month is a lot in relative terms.

If in the current climate you have people trying to reduce every cost they can shopping at Aldis ect. then I think it actually makes it harder not esier to argue for organising new members.

As well as the fact as you said that unions are not seen as being able to protect jobs. So if it costs a lot and people dont think that unions can protect their job why join?

Sorry if what Im saying sounds bad but I thought I would let you have my thoughts.

Hope to see you soon.

Best wishes


Ian Manborde said...

Hi Jaz,

That's a fair point well argued.

Despite what you say though we would always say that the poorly paid in particular need to be unionised as invariably it is their work that is seen as the least valuable to an employer and potentially the easiest to dispose of.

In understand too the parallel assumption that unions appear too weak to defend jobs. Again, the movement falls down in significantly promoting the work we do of defending jobs - this, sadly is not newsworthy although it happens very day in every part of the country.

Hope to see you soon.



shop said...


I agree with the last posted comment.

You cannot ignore the increasingly difficult financial position of low-paid union members.

I am often surprised that we are able to keep in membership groups of members, like those in USDAW, who are paid at either minimum wage or just above.

I have heard you say before that as activists we must always put ourselves in the position of the average member who looks at their pay slip and wonders what exactly have they had in return for their subscription - and that is set to be a question harder to answer in some occasions e.g. DWP where they have had no pay rise for 2 years. And funnily enough DWP has always had the ironic situation of underaid workers claiming for the very benefits that the administer!

What you've said though in principle I can agree with as the critical issue is not to let people think that challenging economic times means an irrelevance for the place of unions in society and the economy.

I do think though that, although unions are costly things to run (reduce GS salaries I say), we should always be considering ways in which to actually reduce the subscription where workers are paid, for example, at a rate where they pay no NI or are paid at minimmum wage.

This would be a good way to attract the poorly paid and, coming to your original point, make the movement appear relevant and open to everyone.

Keep up the good work!


Del Ansar said...


I've just answered an earlier question you raised - hope you like the response.

The previous people have made very good points actually in terms of wages that members get.

I think I understand your point but to be honest Ian its easy for you to say this outside of the workplaces that reps come from.

I'm not being awkward but members really do think hard about paying union fees and are really always on your case about why they should stay in the union.

I cant see how things being as bad as they are can be of any help to be honest.

No doubt you will be bending my ear when I see you next but this is my ideas here.



TGWU Rep said...


Can't help but agree with the other people about the issue of poor members.

Why should they automatically think that unions are a good thing and why should non-unionised people thnk the same?

Lazy thinking Ian.

Ian Manborde said...


Not lazy comrade, just different from yours.

Ask yourself how the British trade union movement grew out of the mass of poorly paid workers in the 19th and 20th centuties. And if you read the history of bodies like the National Unemployed Workers Movement you'll see that that even the unwaged made a significant contribution.

It's a cop-out to suggest that poverty should equal a lack of resistance to poor treatment.

There are many good courses run at Ruskin and Northern Colleges on the history of working class and trades union movements and their economic, social and political advances.

Enrol on one and re-learn the spirit and fight of what got us to where we are today.

Best wishes


Del Ansar said...

Hi Ian,

This is turning into a interesting debate isn't it?

I can see all sides being argued and. It doesn't help Ian to suggest a Stalinist process of re-education for our TGWU/UNITE friend who criticised you of lazy thinking. Although I do support the sentiment of your point.

This needn't be a nil sum game here. The ultimate focus must be on the movement consistently raising its profile and arguing its case regardless of the economic climate.

I have never understood why trade unions do not use mainstream media more for recruitment purposes. I appreciate that it is expensive but I do remember what positive feedback there was in relation to UNISON's ants and bears campaign.

We should also learn from the relative success of recruiting recent Eastern European migrants through alliances of non-workplace related organisations.

This was a novel and unique experience for many trade unions but it invariably paid off to some degree.

I feel also that it is probably the best way in which we appeal to younger workers. The work, for example, of trade unions in the Make Poverty History campaign really demonstrated to some young people that TUs could be relevant on issues not directly linked to the workplace and of appeal to them.

Sadly, I don't see the way in which we reinvigorate and renew ourselves as rocket science. For me the issue if one of failed leadership.

Just look at how UNITE (how strange that name seems now!) is tearing itself apart whilst thousands of workers lose their jobs. It is a disgrace that old, vain men continue to lead our movement down an alley of continuing retrenchment and decline just at the same that we must appear alert and robust in the way that we appear to employers and the rest of the UK.

Perhaps it is the leadership that need re-education?


TGWU Rep said...


Thanks for your support, although I wouldn't mind a bit of re-education if Ian thinks its useful.

I agreed with your last points about leadership - although I of course am supporting Woodley

Jenni said...

Hi Ian,

Sorry, but I think you are barking up the wrong tree here.

If people have less/no money they have less/no money and no amount of harassment from me or other reps or going to make them join a union.


Ian Manborde said...

Hi Jen,

Thanks for the input.

I think you have missed my point slightly though.

I wasn't suggesting that we force workers in poorly paid work into union membership.

My point was about trade union membership being seen as probably more important in highly difficult economic times than it is normally.

I was making a link between the often reactive way that trade unions respond to redundancies for example, and the likely view by non-members of the low potential of unions to defend jobs.

Next time sister read the posted item in full before you reach for the keyboard. You can buy me a drink as well next time we meet up - it's about time!