Since I left Unite, the trade union, my blogpost on the subject has become a place for people to exchange opinions about the merits. Some of these comments have been so negative that I’ve had to not publish them although others have been much more positive. Whilst I respect those that have had negative experiences and never wish to have anything to do with trade unions again, I fear it is their loss. There are no other organisations that seek to represent working people like the trade unions. The comments that I’ve found the most inspiring are those that have admonished me for taking my ball home and suggested that I should, instead, engage in doing something to contribute towards a better trade union.
I’m not sure I’m ready to throw myself into active trade unionism, or that most unions can easily accommodate someone who is not from a workplace with a recognition agreement. However, I hope that the observations below may be of some benefit.
- Trade unions over promise
Unite has the most compelling list of reasons to join the union I’ve ever seen. Ten Good Reasons to Join Unite is the sort of marketing that I used to wish could be produced. But it massively over-promises. You may earn more if you join Unite, but I reckon that the chances are that you earn more because you are more likely to work for responsible employers. I’m sure you are less likely to be sacked, but every member who is (and there will be lots) will feel considerable pain on reading that claim.
- Trade unions under promise
There’s an awful lot of good that a trade union could do. They helped me with public speaking. With understanding how to sit through long meetings. They could have taught me negotiating skills. A better understanding of HR and employment law would be a massive benefit. ‘Join a trade union to get on in your career’: that’s an attractive proposition.
- It’s facilitation, not insurance
Lots of comments on my blogpost were from people who felt let down by the union, its reps and its solicitors. Actually their grievance ought to have been with their employer. But the union helped encourage (or didn’t confront) an expectation that the union could sort out your problems. Actually, if the focus was on helping employees represent themselves, the unions would have more resonance in more workplaces. Yet at unitetheunion.org it’s easier to find ways to buy members’ benefits than communities to stimulate solidarity – just the sort of free market attitude that unions oppose.
- A lack of grassroots debate?
Depending on your search criteria my blogpost can appear in the top 10 search results for the union. It appears that’s how little people write about the trade union online. The union doesn’t seem to offer any public platform for its members to organise campaigns, chat about workplace experiences or network with each other. That’s extraordinary and must be ripe for change (although there does appear to be an ‘Activist Portal’).
- Low awareness of accountability?
Reading through the website it’s very hard to find who works at the union, beyond the general secretary. When people have contacted me reporting problems with union staff, there’s no obvious route through which they can register concerns. There are lots of elections but apparently little awareness of the more mundane procedures by which members can register gripes.
Not all of these observations may be complete, or even fair. But I’ve posted them in an effort to be constructive and learn from the people who’ve shared their experiences of the union with me to discover if these are commonly-held opinions and how we can encourage a more effective trade union. After all, any organisation can only ever be as good as the people that drive it forward.