The first comprehensive survey of how union behaviour has been altered by Covid 19 is featured in the latest UnionDues podcast, which drops at noon today.
Tom Hunt of the Sheffield Political Economic Research Institute and Becky Wright from Unions21 argue that while there are many more questions than answers, the willingness to explore and innovate is the true take-away from the pandemic. Do you agree?
The report is awash with practical illustrations of these initiatives – and their sometimes unplanned consequences.
For example, if the justification for holding union conferences “in real life” is to bring people from across the UK together because otherwise they could not inter-connect, video conferencing puts a wrecking-ball through that argument. And if union democracy can be executed much more cheaply, think of the resources that could be redirected to, say, organising .
But hold on – the survey work also suggests that newer, younger (and implicitly more demographically diverse) delegates felt somewhat lost and disenfranchised in on-line decision-making events. Networking and those soft political and education sessions known as “coffee breaks” and “fringe meetings” are invaluable components of union democracy that would be at risk in a new, purely virtual world.
How to balance old and new
So, one key question is how to balance the old and new. But this is just part of a much bigger picture drawn by the report – that we are in the midst of a profound crisis and many (if not most) of the pre-Covid culture has been replaced, eclipsed or collapsed. Given that “culture eats structure” (as some have said), we need to know what we are doing and why before coming up with a durable response to the question of how.
And that is the outstanding value that this work adds. It details what unions have done, for what purpose and with what effect – even though these things are changing as the pandemic continues. And the result so far of all this change and innovation?
Increases in membership, activism and membership engagement. 70 % reporting better collective bargaining outcomes. And above all a validation that innovation is ok.
Not a panacea – but a major contribution
None of this should be mistaken as a panacea for the challenges unions were and are facing. Some employers are still showing a devasting lack of imagination, with British Gas being the latest to follow BA and Heathrow’s “fire and rehire” catastrophe. Unemployment has climbed steeply with almost certainly worse to come. And of course, the pandemic is frighteningly real. Union members have no exemption from risk, fear, fatigue, illness and even death.
Previous guests of the podcast have likened this to a war, and have asked where a Beveridge figure, with ideas for a post-pandemic society is to be found. I reckon this report deserves a place in that category.
Thought for the week & Radical round-up
An edited version of this post appears on Left Foot Forward