The latest Union Days podcast is all about the distinctive world of union conferences. You can listen here.
Conferences. Or conventions. Assemblies. Forums (or should that be Fora?). We’ve all been to them, haven’t we? They range from being beating vibrant hearts of democracy and accountability to “Feel The Love” gatherings of the faithful.
Trade union conferences are a special beast. Most union rule books will declare that “Conference, when it is in session, is the supreme policy making body of the union.” And no delegate will ever let any paid official forget it!
I’ve been attending union conferences in one capacity or another for around 45 years (I know – I started young!) In so many ways, thank goodness, things are not as they once were.
In the 1970s and into the 80s, decisions at union conferences could trigger huge industrial and political disruption. Perhaps it was an all-pervasive self-aware sense of power (and responsibility) that I found so alluring? Whatever the cause, I was hooked – and when I became a national official attendance was obligatory.
The union conference caravan keeps on rollin’
So from Easter to September, the union conference caravan rolled from one seaside resort to another. Brighton, Bournemouth, Eastbourne, Torquay, Scarborough, Blackpool, Southport. Anywhere with a large enough hall, plentiful cheap accommodation and even cheaper beer.
In the latest Union Days we take a look back to the heyday of union conferences. Before the internet and digital technology. Before the pandemic. Before, too, inclusivity was viewed as an integral prerequisite for effective representation and decision-making.
There are still many challenges in this area of union work. Conferences cost a small fortune to organise – in money, time, energy. There is surely an overwhelming imperative to get the best value for what is spent?
The pandemic and its necessary restrictions were catalysts in this process – the TUC were at the front of the queue in terms of moving everything they could on-line. The report from a post-Congress webinar on lessons learned is instructive!
As restrictions were relaxed and then removed, old-style mass gatherings resumed joyfully – perhaps this was little more than an overwhelming human need for interaction on a person-to-person basis, but does it mean we have taken nothing of value from the last three years?
From “We’re still here” to How can we be better?”
You see, to my mind it isn’t enough to say, “We’re still here”. The line should surely be “How can we be better?”
Certainly, there is a value in bringing significant numbers of approximately like-minded people together. Networking is a tarnished concept, but drawing strength and support from your fellow delegates, renewing acquaintances, learning from others’ experiences in conversation and at fringe evets are all important. They are nurturing and restorative in a wide sense. And to be able to leave a conference with the sense of organisational well-being and personal reinvigoration and renewal is no small prize.
But, how often is all this potential actually realised? Is too much down to chance? And can we tilt the odds more in our favour? So let me pose an alternative.
Would it not be better for these gatherings to spend time debating and deliberating in smaller groups, perhaps facilitated, certainly involving as many delegates as possible. After all, is this not the elite, the most talented and able of our unions?
Even if the criterion is one of aptitude in navigating union election procedures in order to secure a delegate’s badge, there is surely no group better equipped to consider and construct policies in a discursive, multi-faceted way rather than the unsubtle yes-no decision-making.
Would it not be better to build a common identity and sense of purpose by maximising the engagement of each individual delegate in a way that stimulates, challenges and develops? Is that what “being better” could look like?
Strategic thinking in the midst of firefighting
We have to find a way to still be able to think strategically about these things even when we are so busy firefighting – perhaps because we are so busy firefighting.
What we can say is we have learned a lot about engagement and inclusivity. It was excellent, for example, for the TUC in 2020 to host the fringe on a digital platform, extend an invitation to everyone. It was a success to get our messaging heard, reported, and amplified. And it is an approach that has been widely replicated either in whole or in part.
So let’s take the positives and keep moving forward. Let’s look too at other membership-based organisations with big annual events – from the Royal College of General Practitioners to The World Transformed. What bits of what do they do could we mimic?
As well as the democratic-and-accountability things we must do, let’s also look at union conferences through the lens of organisational well-being, regeneration and renewal – all things we should do. That means viewing the recent past as a springboard, not a stopgap. The jury is still out on whether we will, but it looks promising.
You can access the all Union Days episodes, including the latest We Can ‘t Go On Meeting Like This, at bit.ly.UnionDays. Please rate, subscribe, share and enjoy!
Image is of the 1978 Trades Union Congress in session. Credit: Almay