With a country still reeling from the general election result, the Brexit negotiations are supposed to start this week. Prospect will be working to influence them for the good of our members and the industries they serve.
Parliament is balanced on a knife-edge, and we are primed and ready to talk to politicians across the political spectrum. I am both exhilarated by our potential to make things happen and terrified by how much there is to do.
At times like that, we tend to strip our to-do lists of any non-essential tasks. That’s okay as long as we’re confident in our assessment of what’s essential. But the most important jobs, and even the most urgent, are not always the ones that shout the loudest.
In my former life as a union rep, and now as a full-time organiser, I have met many trade unionists too busy to think about recruiting new members. Often, they’re the most dedicated, hardest-working reps, swamped with the day-to-day business of case handling and negotiations.
I get it. I really do! We’re all working flat out, combining our day jobs with trying to service the needs of our existing members. Where do we find the time to talk to non-members about what they stand to gain by joining the union?
And how will we cope if they do join, and turn out to have needs of their own? Who has time to help a new union volunteer get active, when it would be quicker just to do the job yourself?
But our busyness is a ticking time bomb. Numbers are falling across the trade union movement. As we lose reps, we have no way to replace their expertise. We’re having to work harder than ever just to stay afloat. So maybe we should fix the leaky boat rather than jettison the outboard motor.
I recently heard one particularly inspiring rep emphasise the importance of recruiting members in relation to lobbying the government on behalf of EU workers. “The more members we have, the better our case,” she said.
When I became a Prospect rep, my focus (some might say my obsession) was on increasing both membership and activity in my workplace. I’ll be honest with you: other aspects of my life suffered for the cause. Weekends were spent working my fingers to the bone making union banners and baking sugary bribes. My friends called me a union bore (guilty as charged). My caffeine intake doubled… but so did our membership density. Eventually “union stuff” became a regular feature of workplace chat, both over coffee and in formal meetings.
Then, this time last year, I was called on to help two long-standing members with a really tough case. Word got round the lab that their jobs were on the line, and I found myself explaining the situation to a meeting of, literally, half the staff. “What do we do?” they asked.
“What are we going to do about this?”
We had a majority of the workforce, ready and willing to take action to defend the jobs of two of our friends. Imagine how that felt for the two members who were in the firing line. Imagine how it felt for me, as their representative. Now imagine how it felt for management, coming into the negotiations. And I believe that’s what really won us the case.
“That’s great!” I said when they told me our members would be kept on. “As you know, we’ve got another union meeting next week, and it’ll be nice to have some good news to tell them.”
“Yes,” they replied with a wry smile, “we did have that in mind.”
I know that some members and reps are intimidated by the thought of recruiting. It’s not as scary as all that. Every member and rep has enough information to make a start: just grab a friend and tell them why you joined. If you get a taste for it, or want to get strategic about it, we can help you with that. But the main thing is to get workplaces talking about what we do, because we can’t do anything if they’re not on board.
All our power as a union comes from the strength of our membership. At the national scale, our capacity to provide expertise and resources depends entirely on subscriptions coming in. At the workplace scale, it’s even more immediate. Our credibility relies on us being genuinely representative of our bargaining units. Our negotiating clout is proportional to the number of colleagues we can count on to support us.
For union reps, the activities of serving members and recruiting them are inextricable. Whether for a national campaign, or a personal case, growing the union should be the first point of every strategy. It can’t be treated as a would-be-nice for when we run out of other things to do. That time will never come.
- Jenny Andrew is a full-time Prospect organiser and a former research scientist