Many trade unionists believe they do not get a fair press. They complain that they are largely ignored – despite representing millions of British citizens – and when they are given attention, it’s for their relationship with the Labour party rather than a more complete picture about their hard work representing people and workforces to business leaders.
TUC conference is the one week in the year when trade unions can be certain of a higher profile. Most newspapers send a team of correspondents to cover the gathering and senior trade union leaders get a fair amount of airtime. The Sun’s coverage of the high heels campaign was probably the most memorable thing about the conference, although Derek Simpson‘s views on Ed Miliband and Brendan Barber‘s warning of civil unrest also stand out.
However, I wanted to get beyond the big headlines and find out what trade unions were really talking about:
- Do they just engage in political grandstanding?
- Are they male dominated in their public profile?
- Are they just focussed on the public sector and shrinking parts of the economy?
- Do they stand up for the most vulnerable and marginalised workers in society?
To find some answers to these questions, I look at all the press releases from the week produced by the two biggest trade unions: Unite and Unison. There were 17 releases from Unite and 16 from Unison (in their news section). I stripped out the bits which related to the press release rather than the story (the union name, the job title of the spokesperson and the references to ‘today’).
What matters to Unite?
There were six things that struck me about this:
- the low profile of Derek Simpson and higher profile of Tony Woodley – and the lack of a dominant person in the press releases
- the appearance of ‘Polish’ as a key issue of concern – reflecting the work that Unite has done to recruit migrant workers into its ranks
- the higher profile of public sector issues for a union which was historically more private sector (manufacturing, transport, engineering etc)
- the lack of mentions of cuts – the big political story of the week
- the defensive nature of much of the press releases – ‘calling’ was a key word rather than ‘demands’ or ‘warning’ or ‘threatening’
- the relatively high profile of lots of industrial disputes I’d never heard of: Hackney carriages, Belhaven, Woodford
What matters to Unison?
The differences between these two were significant for me:
- Unison used mor e soft, collegiate words such as ‘people’, ‘voice’ ‘support’ and ‘social’
- The greater diversity of their issues ‘young’, ‘disability’
- ‘recession’ features more prominently together with particular issues such as ‘defined-benefit’
- The absence of a profile for a particular leader. Dave or Prentis do not show up
Clearly this only gives a flavour of the issues that trade unions are prioritising. But there is a clear gap between the stories that get trade unions in the news and the day to day work that makes them important to their members. And there is also a gap between the vision of modern trade unions standing up for those in the most mistreated and vulnerable in badly run workplaces and the members that they actually have.