Skip to content
Unions 21
| Blog post

Giving members voice during industrial action

By Damon Silvers, Unions 21 Senior Fellow | 3 min

“THEY.” The most dangerous word in the English language for a union leader talking with the press, the public or politicians.

Why is that so? Because “they” is the key word in a psychological and political process sometimes called “othering.” Whomever we refer to as “they” is by definition not “us” or “we.” “They” are the other. And in a conflict, whomever the enemy is, we will refer to them as “they.”

In my report as part of the Giving Members’ Voice project, I explored the idea of a typology of union engagement. As you move through each area, unions create greater engagement and stronger relationships as members see their union reflecting what they think, feel and do. In essence, what is happening is that unions, union leadership and union members are moving from ‘they’ to ‘us’.

There is a reality that every union leader lives with, which is that effective industrial action is only possible when union members themselves truly have had enough of the terms and conditions under which they are working, when union members are ready to take risks and engage in uncomfortable conflict, either because we have our backs to the wall economically, or we have hope for a better life that previously under previous circumstances we could not have hoped for.

When trade union representatives speak about the relationship between unions and union members in the context of industrial action, trade union representatives should be conscious that what we are doing is describing the process of communications between and among union members and those the members have elected to lead their union.

And so here are some brief principles to keep in mind when describing the way unions, our members and the members’ elected leaders relate to each other, and particularly in the context of members taking industrial action.

Language needs to deepen engagement and reflect that a union IS its members.

The only people that should be referred to as ‘they’ are those with power on the other side of the table, whether that is the government or an employer. “They wont let the managers at the table make a sensible deal.” “They wont come to the table,”. Any reference to workers should be in terms of ‘we’ ‘us’ or the jobs of people taking the action, for example ‘nhs workers’ rather than ‘the union.’

Build common interests with other workers and the public.

Do not “other” the general public or working people in general. Look to use language that emphasises the common interests of all working people. In response to questions about the impact of industrial action on the public, rather than saying things like “people don’t understand that —-,” say “everyone in Britain is angry that we arent being paid enough to pay the rent, while business profits rise, our members just decided we were going to do something about it.”

Democratic legitimacy is Our Greatest Strength.

Unions are democratic organisations with equal or superior legitimacy to governments. Never let the press or politicians treat your union like it is undemocratic or that you as a spokesperson for the members are anything other than the representative of a democratic organisation. Never allow a government that has never faced the voters to suggest that they are more legitimate than you are.

And most importantly, never miss an opportunity to remind the press and the public that workers take industrial action through their union after deep and serious discussion and communication.

More ideas