29 September 2012

Recruitment, resistance and building the union

The General Secretary’s message to branch officers refers to a downturn in the union’s total membership during this year. This is a reversal of the five-year trend since UCU’s formation of gradually increasing membership. In the year to 29th August 2012 membership fell from 122,378 to 117,085. Our current membership is now about the same as when the AUT and Natfhe merged.

While the General Secretary is right to draw members’ attention to this decline, and to implement a recruitment campaign, it would be a mistake to draw overly pessimistic conclusions from the recent figures, or to conclude that the union is in dire financial difficulties.

UCU achieved an operating surplus of £900,630 in the nine months to 31st May. Additionally, in August the union signed the sale contract on Britannia Street, the former Natfhe HQ, for around £12 million. Much of that will repay the bridging loan which UCU took out in 2008 but the union will benefit considerably once the sum is paid: it will no longer have to service that loan or the maintenance, security, insurance and rates on Britannia Street which amount to £50,000 per month.

While the union’s current finances remain healthy, however, any significant and sustained drop in membership subscriptions over a period of years would undeniably put this at risk.

The reasons for the current loss of membership are not hard to find.

Post-16 education faces a huge assault in terms of cuts to various funding streams, cuts to student support, the impact of rising tuition fees, privatization and productivity offensives which seek to drive up individual workloads leading to further job cuts. There are fewer posts available. The fall in the number of new posts in institutions has meant a drop in recruitment even though the proportion of new starters joining the union may remain unchanged.

A recent analysis of reasons people gave for leaving the union showed 85% left due to retirement, left the profession, were made redundant, went abroad or died.  Only a small minority (under 15%) left because they were dissatisfied with the union.

Any union must actively recruit a significant proportion of its membership annually to match this ‘churn’. The objective circumstances facing unions in the current austerity assault are significant but bucking the current membership decline in UCU is perfectly possible and achievable – providing we recognise why people join and why they remain in unions and how we can reach the very large numbers of eligible staff in post-16 education, particularly younger staff, and encourage them to join.

Resistance builds the unions

Many public sector unions have recruited significantly in the past year during the action over public sector pensions. Around 100,000 workers in total joined public sector unions, with about 1,500 joining UCU in the run up to November 30th.  There is an important lesson in this – people join unions when they see them taking action on behalf of people like them.

This is why it is so damaging to the union as a whole when our national leadership attempts to undermine calls for national action over pay, jobs or pensions, or when it fails to campaign enthusiastically for action amongst the membership.

Historically the same is true for trade unions in general. Labour Force Survey figures of trade union membership in the UK from 1892 until last year show that the first big surge in recruitment was from 1910 to 1920, a period of rising trade union struggle. In contrast, there was a drastic decline after the defeat of the 1926 General Strike. Another recovery took place from 1934, as industrial struggle revived. Membership in the C20th peaked in the late 1970s after the mass strikes during that decade.

The prolonged period of very low strike figures through the 1980s, 1990s and up to the recent past are marked by a continuing decline in trade union membership from a peak of around 13 million members to the current figure of around 7.5 million, although the decline has been much less pronounced during the most recent recession from 2008.

Of course it is important that individual members are supported through advice, casework and legal support where necessary. But national and coordinated collective action has much more impact in creating a ‘union culture’ in the workplace which encourages new people to join and get involved. When staff see the union collectively resisting pay cuts, pension cuts, punitive observations, attacks on contracts or redundancies, the incentive to join is much stronger.

There is plenty of scope for recruitment in every college and university. The density of union membership is rarely over 60 or 70 per cent. That means there are probably around 100,000 staff in FE and HE (at least) who could be recruited to UCU.

Build the October 20th demo build the union.

While the union nationally can deliver mail shots and targeted recruitment material there is no substitute for direct approaches from local branch members. Regions can play a crucial role here by mapping branch memberships, and coordinating regional support and input.

One particular pool for increasing membership which the union needs to address is the large number of younger lecturers and academic related staff in some of the most exploited, frequently part-time, roles in HE and FE. UCU needs to design a recruitment strategy aimed at these workers, including subs concessions and targeted recruitment material. There is a huge number of casualised, part-time staff who could be recruited to the union as long as they can be convinced that UCU takes their issues seriously, nationally and locally.

We urge all branches to plan a recruitment campaign. The TUC demonstration on the 20th October needs to be at the heart of this campaign. Each branch should:

  • set up a weekly stall in a prominent place in your college/university;
  • ask your management for a full list of staff (or construct it yourself, if necessary), and map against union membership list, and plug the gaps by organising a team of people to visit non-members to ask them to join;
  • produce a local leaflet outlining what your UCU branch has achieved in the last two years.

We should be confident that the union can reverse the recent drop in membership, and avoid what the GS refers to as the need to make ‘some hard choices’.  It would be damaging and counter-productive if such choices involved seeking to undermine democratic representation, regional structures or a loss of staff.  And it is not helpful to have surveys that seem patently to construct a case for subverting regional organisation and the union’s democratic processes.

Let us rather move forward to build a campaigning and a democratic union.

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