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Unions 21
| Blog post

Trade Union revitalisation. If not now, when?

By Dean Rogers, Director of Industrial Relations and Member Relations, Society of Radiographers | 3 min

Unions have been around a long time. However, throughout a lot of established economies, membership and influence are in decline.

At many conferences and confederal meetings, it’s likely that there will be many words about how others are responsible for this decline but, using the last thirty years as a rough guide, I’m anticipating far fewer about how unions can take control of their renewal. If the unions representing the majority of members right now are to still exist when the post-Covid generation reaches retirement age that’s going to have to change sooner rather than later.  

Trade union revitalisation is not only dependent on leadership to give clarity and vision on what change is needed but also the courage to challenge how we operate. This is going to need change in two key areas.

Firstly, we need to stop valuing action over outcome.   When we’re starved of successes this could be an understandable excuse but it will also be fatal – any union will be judged by its members on the tangible differences it has made, not the action we took to get there. A rally is not success, a pay increase is. 

Secondly, we need to tackle the fact that the wider society we operate in has changed dramatically over the last half a century.  With exceptions, how unions operate, organise and engage with members has barely changed.

Not tackling these two factors is now destructive and undermining union efforts to engage with a new generation of workers. Society isn’t short of groups saying systems no longer work for them – leaving workers vulnerable, insecure, and voiceless.  Unions should be where they can come to engage, participate and find their voice but our methods are at odds with reality because how we do things has become a safe and familiar refuge.

The recent work by Unions 21 in Giving Members Voice suggests to unions to ask the people we’re trying to bring in, what they think and connect on their terms.  This might be challenging but it’s necessary to build a long lasting movement.

Other questions we could ask ourselves:

  • Are we really inclusive enough to say we are democratic?

  • Do we listen well enough to be truly representative?

  • Are we open and transparent enough to genuinely earn member trust?

  • Are our structures genuinely equal, fair, safe?

  • Are we confident enough to be flexible and let go of some of our controls?

  • Are our spaces and messages positive and hopeful enough to want to engage?

How unions do things cannot be unchallengeable truths if the next generation of potential members ask these questions and come up with answers that we don’t like.

Trade union revitalisation isn’t just about getting more members.  It’s more fundamental to how we operate effectively.  The reason for unions – to challenge, represent, give voice and negotiate improvements for workers, their communities and families – doesn't change.   The working environment and society does. 

If unions didn’t exist someone would invent them but they’d look and operate very differently to our traditional unions models.

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