Being asked what you do for a living is, for a trade unionist, an opportunity and a challenge. It’s most fascinating when it arises in social situations where the person asking the question may have their own superficial but often well-established view of unions.
It’s also generational – with responses ranging from “oh, like Arthur Scargill” from one age group to “what’s a union?” from another. Both viewpoints can challenge one’s patience, but we ignore either one at our peril!
As I write this column, I reflect on my work of the last few weeks. I have had the privilege of celebrating Satnam Ner’s year as the first black president of the Scottish TUC – Satnam is vice-chair of Prospect’s Rosyth Royal Dockyard branch and a long-standing member of our national executive.
I have also been promoting our work on the future of collective bargaining, meeting members doing fascinating work and trying to reach decision-makers in government. What I have not done is spend time plotting the final downfall of capitalism or opposing everything employers say.
In parallel, we have been asking members what they need from the union and exploring the attitudes and understanding of those who we want to attract.
It is sobering to discover that while potential members are not ideologically opposed to unions, they just don’t get the value of what we offer and the difference we can make. Our language can be mystifying and we need to improve our accessibility.
We have also become aware that starting off with the union message of collective cooperation can distort individuals’ perceptions and risk suppressing their interest.
We need to accept that describing the compelling individual reasons to join the union provides the basis from which to build a positive experience of the collective, transformative impact we have.
Prospect has given strong leadership of late about why we must revive collective bargaining, particularly in the private sector. Our recent report in association with ResPublica is just one example.
But our deeper challenge is that for those who have never experienced union membership, let alone bargaining, the notions involved are not immediate and resonant. We need to strip it all back and explain again why this matters to working people.
We must explain “what unions do”. We know the official media will never provide balanced union commentary. That’s why our own communications, using all available channels and informed by contemporary opinion, are crucial. It’s our job to explode the myths and tell those who will listen what unions really do.
This includes promoting the role models for civic society who emerge from our ranks, highlighting the positive influence we have on employers and the government and – yes – the fact that we will fight if the circumstances demand it.
We are in a constant battle for time-limited attention and we must define what unions do, not have it defined for us.