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UnionDays – It’s here!

Well, at last! The UnionDays project has been some considerable time in the making. The first episode dropped this morning and you can download or stream it here.

Thank you!

I want to give a shout out to the generous and erudite souls who were kind enough to act as critical friends, listening to pilot episodes and giving invaluable feedback. Andrew, Daire, Dave, Godfrey, Jeanne, Jo, Ken, Lorna, Richard, Roger, Sarah, Wendy – thank you! (and apologies to anyone I’ve inadvertently missed out).

Each episode dips into my scrapbook of stories from a lifetime’s work in and for unions. I’ve changed some names and other details where it seemed sensible to do so, but there is at least a grain of veracity in all that is said – caveated only by any flaws in my powers of recollection.

It’s the characters and the scrapes they get into that bring these tales to life – but each episode also deals with some thorny issues about union organising or servicing or governance, or aspects of employment law. This companion blog is where we discuss those in a bit more detail.

Union structures – horizontal v. vertical

In episode 1 we touch on models of union organisation. Some unions remain steadfastly committed to a horizontal structure which often has its roots in a class-based view of society. However, the culture of a particular industrial sector, and the management style that it generates, can also be a significant factor.

The custom-and-practice in postal branches of the CWU was and as far as I know remains that you could not take a supervisory position, even on an acting basis, and retain your membership, still less have a representative role. Even when explicitly directed to desist from arbitrary removals from these positions, older and usually more senior local officials would struggle to comply.

So horizontal forms of organising, either side of an invisible but palpable class divide continues to play a significant role in the British labour movement. It seems counter-intuitive for those operating in that environment to conceive of it changing. When the CWU was actively pursuing a merger with the self-described union for professionals, mangers and specialists in the telecoms industry (Connect, as was), the idea of vertical organising truly and genuinely perplexed some more open-minded activists. And the idea of “having bosses in our union” was an anathema to just as many.

Culture matters

And the role the culture of the sector plays in this? Well, Royal Mail, the largest employer of CWU members, is perhaps one of the last examples of a large-scale labour-intensive employer. Collection, sorting and delivery of mail is a huge operation that has evolved over the best part of 200 years. It is a national institution, both as a service and as a concept, historically hard-wired into many communities (read Alan Johnson’s excellent “Please Mr Postman” to understand better the place of the post office in British society).

The size of the employer, the nature of the work or the strong, almost integral link between service provider and customer is a potent mix. A withdrawal of labour has an immediate effect, and the core network of large workplaces means there is union strength-in-numbers. Add in the stark difference in the day-to-day experience of postal workers and postal managers and you can see all too clearly why union organisation in this industry mirrors a generalised idea of class.

Tipped into this mixture are three other aggravating factors, that serve to reinforce the existing structure. There is management style – perhaps inevitably constrained by the need to ensure delivery of millions of items and organise an army of tens of thousands of workers. Is it really true, as I was told, that the largest occupational group amongst football referees is (or was) Royal Mail managers? That feels right to me.

From the lowest paid to most senior executive – a vertical approach

On the other hand, a vertical structure will take in everyone from the most junior, lowest paid grade to the CEO or MD. The set up at Kew Gardens described in the podcast was a prime example. Midwifery and the structure of the Royal College of Midwives is another.

The advantages of being able to speak on professional issues with one voice, having union-friendly behaviour modelled by senior staff, and creating a safe space for issues to be discussed are balanced by risks of things being said in a union meeting or context that are cited and misinterpreted in a work situation, that problems in the workplace flow through into the union environment, thereby nullifying the ideas that it is a safe space for all members, and that those in more senior positions at work, will assume the leading positions in the union, by default rather than popular vote.

In some trade-based unions like USDAW, the issue is internalised with a quasi-autonomous supervisory or technical section.  

I tend to think that it is culture and behaviours that determine whether a particular structure is effective. Defensive attitudes mitigate against operating efficiently and effectively. As how unions use data becomes ever more important, I think the gap between sharing and silo-based cultures will become increasingly apparent. For more on that, have a listen to the recent UnionDues podcast, “Knowledge is power

Next time

Next time on UnionDays – I’m still working for the specialist civil servants’ union.  Hear why one employer thought jury service didn’t apply to their staff, how another sacked someone for being on maternity leave, and why a third was given a “take it or leave it” ultimatum by their employees.  Hear too about a change in my responsibilities that brought me face-to-face with spooks, so-called weapons of doom and, albeit indirectly, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. That drops on 25 May. The companion blog will focus on the importance of local branches.

Thanks for reading, listening, sharing, rating, reviewing. If you like what you heard, please tell all your friends, colleagues and followers! Thank you.

One thought on “UnionDays – It’s here!

  1. I’ve been a National Officer in each of a single -employer union ( a retail bank) , a sectoral union (education) and a single profession union (pharmacists). Each has strengths from that identity. BUT if I were designing the trade union movement from scratch, I think we’d all just join “the movement” and on an issue by issue act collectively as appropriate. for example Issue about contract – unite with others in the same employer, issue about professional training – unite with others in the same profession, issue about discrimination – unite with those of same characteristic, issue about our hometown – unite with those in the same geography, issue about the economy unite across the nation.

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