Why We Need a Fighting Trade Unionism

Recent decades have seen a decline in trade union membership, with workers' conditions deteriorating as a result. The need for the labour movement hasn't diminished – but to rebuild it, we need to be brave.

Post Office workers hold a march and a meeting at Speakers Corner. London, 4th February 1971. (Photo by Eric Harlow/Mirrorpix/Getty Images)

As the pandemic descended last spring, workers across the world were forced to meet unprecedented challenges.

Nurses, postal workers, teachers, bus drivers, railwaymen, technicians, engineers — every one surpassed all expectations of duty. When those who believe they’re born to rule panicked and dithered, ordinary working people proved that their work keeps our country going and holds our communities together.

This crisis has been an uneven experience for different workers. For many in modern, casualised workplaces, longstanding obdurance by employers on vital health and safety issues has resulted in workers being made unnecessarily vulnerable. But for those in environments with a strong trade union presence, it was often a different story.

Across multiple industries, confident trade unionists took initiative in enforcing health and safety law, drafting new social distancing measures in their jobs, and even holding walkouts and unofficial strikes if management wasn’t taking the situation seriously. This renewed realisation of the importance of trade unions was no doubt reflected in union membership rising modestly to 6.4 million last year.

But the labour movement can’t afford to be completely triumphant over this news. Much of this increase is in smaller, more industrially-focused unions such as the National Education Union (NEU), whose strong defence of teachers on issues like school closures earned them 30,000 new members.

But when talking to people in larger unions, it is clear that many feel like the crisis caught them off-guard, and that unlike the Tories — who are using the crisis to contract everything out to their incompetent mates — parts of the labour movement missed its moment.

Ever Tried, Ever Failed

Before Covid-19, as the trade union movement declined, it was clear that much of its leadership had little compelling vision for growth into new sectors or even retaining old bastions. For years, too many have been happy to tread water, fighting for control over organisations with a decreasing influence in the real world.

The timidity of many unions when it came to putting up a determined fight, whether industrially or politically, for their dues-paying members was costly in the time before the pandemic. But by the time this issue goes to print, it’s likely that Britain will have lost one million jobs during Covid-19 — and any union not prepared to fight in a post-pandemic environment will be in severe difficulty.

One common solution is to double down on efforts to bring in new members through the traditional route of meeting people in their workplace. Another is to build an improved social media presence and focus on digital communications.

For us in the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the answer is both. The CWU has always been firmly rooted in the workplaces it represents. Its bread and butter is protecting its members, fighting and winning industrial disputes, and offering our workers a collective voice in political issues.

When Dave Ward was elected as general secretary in 2015, it was with the understanding that the many challenges the union faces can’t be solved by the same old methods. Since then, we have seen a CWU leadership emerge that is committed to internal self-reflection, open to new ways of operating, and sober about the sorts of challenges that trade unions face.

In the past five years, the union has tried many new things. Some have worked, some haven’t. But the difference is with this sort of perspective is that our members have been allowed to openly engage in considering what grows and strengthens a twenty-first-century union and what doesn’t.

We’re better for having tried and failed in a number of areas instead of not having bothered at all. And we can admit this — which is a sadly uncommon attitude within our movement. Testing the water has allowed us to develop a dynamic online engagement strategy which has helped to win ballots, grow our profile, and deliver for the union’s membership.

Workers’ Voices

Key to much of our work is a belief that the language we deploy is critical. Our movement is often guilty of playing to the expectations of politicians or pundits. But if we’re serious about rebuilding our movement into something serious about changing the balance of power in favour of workers, we need easier communication in language people are familiar with.

Working people appreciate straightness and honesty. They want their representatives to make the case for their concerns and hopes in a robust and unapologetic way. They don’t need pieces fit for the palates of a Guardian editor, but examples of communication that can inspire them, give them confidence in their fight, and bypass those who demonise them.

If you do this right, it works, and other things fall into line; employers, politicians, and the media are forced to respect your members for the power of their union operation, not because their leadership are using thesauruses to pen letters.

This is why we need to think seriously about developing the right spokespeople. In recent postal disputes, the fiery speeches of Terry Pullinger, our deputy general secretary (postal), have been a powerful mobilising influence when recorded and shared by union social media channels. We also have members like Luke Elgar, who has made from-the-heart videos off his phone calling for key workers’ solidarity with teachers and explaining the pressures that his fellow posties were under during the Christmas haul.

Both of these videos cut through divisive nastiness, help people stand strong together, and — judging by the media demand for both figures — give our movement a strong position to put our case in wider society.

It isn’t just about national leadership or online ‘figures’ — quite the opposite. CWU members need to hear from their peers, from people they know, people who look and sound like them.

In the past few years, we have focused on live updates through our Facebook page which draw in thousands of viewers and regular engagement in the comment threads. We have produced high-quality videos about our strikes — which both inspire workers and spread the message. And we have put our workers’ stories forward more generally too, through videos calling for a ‘new normal’ after Covid or celebrating frontline workers’ contributions this Christmas.

We have also produced articles from workers explaining disputes in their own terms, including in Tribune itself, which we make sure achieve the broadest possible circulation in WhatsApp chats, Facebook groups, and by email. The aim of all this is simple: to give members maximum clarity on union news, to encourage them to stand with their colleagues, and to galvanise public support.

Power in a Union

The self-confidence of workers is fundamental to us. Let’s face it, too often our movement has used organising and communication strategies to sell members to the media as helpless victims, relying on sympathy from ‘respectable’ figures to gain leverage. But even if this does gain concessions, do a few people playing high politics leave us in a healthier place?

It’s a disgrace that so many people think their voice doesn’t matter, or that their only currency is their vulnerability. We are not a sob story. The role of the organised working class is to smash those conceptions.

In the CWU, members are encouraged all the time to get involved in our campaigns. Our key message is that everything the union does is in their hands. For ordinary people with a union card, we’ve found it’s a powerful motivator — the union’s resources are put to the service of telling their stories in their own words, and championing their achievements in the workplace.

But we’re also not afraid to be combative. Late last year, we projected graphics onto the offices of BT after our members delivered a thumping mandate for taking action against managers hell-bent on a nonsensical jobs shake-up. In September 2018, members flew out to humiliate Rico Back — whose goal as Royal Mail CEO was to tear Royal Mail to pieces at his own Swiss mansion. And through several Facebook Live events, he hasn’t been the only bad boss who has experienced being doorstepped by the CWU.

To some in the labour movement, stunts like these were seen as funny and uplifting. Others saw them as eccentric or even improper. This speaks to a particularly odd symptom of defeat in our movement: that our own lack of self-confidence has meant the growth of a real humourlessness. There is potential in taking the piss out of your opponents, and the resonance it’ll have with working people.

The fact is, humour cuts through. After another ballot win for Royal Mail Group workers in 2019, the company took to Twitter to express how ‘very disappointed’ they were at their employees standing up for themselves.

When we quote tweeted this statement with a simple ‘U ok hun?’, it set off a stream of public solidarity towards our members and gave us one of our best rates of engagement on any social media platform. And you know what else? Members loved it — the fact their union was prepared to mock the condescension they saw day to day from bosses was an emboldening experience.

In recent times, you’d be hard-pressed to find a union ballot that received more public attention than ours in Royal Mail. Humour has a serious impact: it shows that bosses aren’t gods, they’re not more powerful than united workers, and they don’t have to have the last word.

A Winning Culture

Inside a union membership, acts like these also create a snowball effort. Workers share union communications, see what’s happening, and want to get active as a result. Because of this, we try and encourage friendly competition between different local union branches.

It’s not about people getting one over on each other or trying to be the best, it’s about growing the strength of the union through the kind of friendly competition that people experience at a pub quiz, the dart board, or on the seven-a-side pitch — but too rarely in their own unions.

A great example is in publicising mass meetings. If one union branch posts a huge turnout at their meeting and we nationally plug them, there’s a strong chance a nearby branch will want to post a video of an even bigger meeting. This knock-on effect means that in any industrial campaign, motivated grassroots initiatives spring up everywhere.

During a ballot of Royal Mail workers in 2019, we held over 900 highly-motivated workplace meetings in a single day, with unprecedented numbers of members becoming invested in the fight to beat the anti-union laws and win the ballot. In the end, we delivered a 97.1% ‘yes’ vote on a 76% turnout.

We achieved this because we had an army of workers in branches, motivated by the idea of chipping in alongside their mates to be part of something special. They wanted to show everyone else what they could do. It is a harmless energy to harness, not something to be policed — but the culture it builds can transform a union.

These are ideas worth thinking about and emulating in the broader movement. They most certainly don’t hold all the answers to the problems we face. But in recent years we have consistently smashed the thresholds put in place by anti-union laws to prevent effective strike action — and where is Rico Back now? The millionaire CEO brought in to discipline CWU members was instead sent packing himself.

Our activity and efforts are rooted in a real fear that our movement isn’t advancing in the way it should be, and in a sense of determination that we don’t retreat even further into our own shell. After five years of tightening ranks to defend Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, now is the moment to be brave, innovative, and self-critical — and think about how we build a fighting trade unionism that’s reflective of our times.

If you stand still while the world moves on, you’ll soon find yourself going backwards. Our period of time is marked by uncertainty, and recent decades have shown that you can’t hide or run away from it — you have to jump into it. That is what the CWU is doing as a union.

As we head into 2021, we will release a pioneering trade union app. We will do podcasts, publish all sorts of materials to engage our members, hold live workplace meetings — online and in person — and plenty of other forms of movement output. If we have learnt anything from the past few years, it is that we should be confident, unrelenting, and unforgiving, but also that we shouldn’t be afraid to try new things.

That is the CWU’s plan for 2021. If we as a movement can’t advance in this moment of crisis where the system has exposed its willingness to sacrifice workers’ lives in the name of profit, then we may as well go home. But we’re not intending to waste our year we plan to seize the initiative and bolster our workers’ position. Let’s see how we get on.

Correction: This article originally stated that the National Education Union had added 50,000 new members during the course of the pandemic, the correct number is 30,000.

About the Author

Marcus Barnett is associate editor at Tribune.

Chris Webb is the head of communications at the Communication Workers Union (CWU). He served as president of Plymouth Argyle Football Club between 2011 and 2018.