Getting down to business

From the Archive

With numbers of trade union members plummeting, Usdaw the trade union for shop workers, is managing to buck the trend.

Anticipations editor, Ellie Groves talks to the General Secretary of Usdaw, John Hannett, finding out his big secret behind this success and what he thinks an ideal relationship between the trade unions and the Labour Party would look like.

Ellie Groves (EG): What is the biggest challenge for trade unions currently? And how do you overcome it?
John Hannett (JH): There are three key challenges. One is a more parochial challenge - the size and the scale of the opportunity to grow our membership. At Usdaw we are in a very fortunate position - we have grown by over 100,000 members in the last 10 years, because we have identified the need for a sustainable organising approach within Usdaw and taken action. Secondly, in terms of the change taking place in the public sector, and the move to reach out to those in the private sector, the big challenge for all Unions is to develop the kind of model of organising that is required.
The third challenge is significant because it is about the question of identity within the workplace. There are companies that do currently recognise trade unions, but the fact that only 14% of private sector workers are part of a trade union throws up a question about union influence in those companies, and why those workers don't see the value of trade union representation. This challenge is about how we, as unions, get the recognition we deserve for adding value in the work place.

It is about developing an engagement model that enables employers to recognise the value that trade unions give to their employees - our members. There are many different strands to how unions go about that. The reason it’s so important is that if the union movement doesn't grow and establish its role in employee engagement, then employers will establish their own processes and workers won’t get independent representation.

EG: You are the fastest growing trade union, why do you think this is?
JH: If you consider the fact that Usdaw has to recruit 70,000 members a year to stand still, that reflects the turnover of employment within the retail sector and the other trades in which we organise. Some years ago, we were recruiting members; however, we also knew that the potential was so great that we developed what I would call a business model. What we wanted to do was to have a joined up trade union. We installed practices and processes in Usdaw, such as setting clear targets, and creating our own balanced scorecard. Most importantly, we linked every part of the union together - in terms of its paid staff all the way through to the union reps who volunteer their services. This is reflected in what we did when the modernisation fund came in under the previous Labour Government. We now have two Academies where lay union members are seconded to the union for a number of weeks. They start in the classroom learning analytical and organising skills, which they then use out in the workplace, to recruit and support Union members and building a network of reps.

While many unions have merged and become larger through acquisition, Usdaw has increased membership through genuine growth. We are confident that we will get half a million members within the next few years. It will be tough, because it does depend on external factors, but to grow effectively you have to have the proper accountabilities and management structures. If you get that right then you deliver the best service for the members. A bigger Union is a stronger Union, and that’s good news for our members.

EG: How do you think trade unions can better reach out to recruit private sector workers?
JH: The potential in the private sector is enormous. If you look at the number of people who are joining online then this is actually increasing. The argument that people don't want to join a union is a myth. But I have learnt that whilst the core offer of a trade union is collective bargaining, grievance and discipline, there needs to be a wider union offer too. Our offer must include campaigns. Usdaw has campaigns on mental health, parents and carers, as well as the 'Freedom from Fear' campaign seeking to protect retail workers from verbal and physical abuse in the workplace. People want the union to speak to those core issues, to improve pay and conditions, but they also want the union to give a wider offer, so we also have a political dimension to our work.

One challenge for the unions is how they can be seen as more than one dimensional and goes beyond the stereotype view of trade unions. Unions are already identified in many of the top companies but there is still an attitude out there that unions are not a force for good - so it is about bringing more to the table for members and showing employers that unions add value through this wider remit. It is about having an effective organising and campaigning strategy.

EG: Private sector workers might be nervous of upsetting their employers if they join a union, do you think the radicalism of public sector unions affects the uptake in the private sector?
There is a stereotypical view of trade unions which can often be identified by some people at board level thinking unions are too much hard work and are all about taking people out on strike. This can make employees extremely nervous to get involved with unions. But the progressive employers are the ones we have signed agreements with.

We’ve signed agreements with employers where we had very little membership but they had the confidence to open up the discussion about representation and fairness in the workplace. On the other hand, there are a number of companies on the high street where our membership numbers have grown significantly but the employer, for reasons best known to themselves, will resist a formal arrangement with us. The best relationships are the ones that are built on trust. The ones that are forced arrangements, when we have to use the statutory recognition legislation are far more difficult to make work. That places a big onus on the trade unions as well. If you're running a business and your fear is that trade unions are one dimensional and negative, then you’re more likely to resist building that relationship. There’s a real need for leadership in both organisations to identify what each can bring to the relationship. It is a real challenge for trade unions, especially those who are moving from public to private sector and it might require a different approach to the past.

EG: What do you think about Cameron saying the Tory Party is the party for the self-employed?
JH: If you look at when Labour was in government there was always a dynamic between unions and politicians, yet, under a Tory government the dialogue and consultations are very limited. This might be the narrative of the Tories and their perception of the unions. But if they were really serious about being the party of all workers then this must include those who are represented by unions too. The challenge I have put to the government is this - where is the example of any conversation of a serious note with trade unions? Now, they may have a reason as to why they don't have these conversations, but if they want to describe themselves as the workers’ party, self-employed or not, then there should be some evidence of conversations with trade unions.

EG: What do you think the ideal relationship between the Labour Party and trade unions would look like?
From my experience on the NEC during the New Labour years, ideally it has to be a relationship based on tolerance. What I mean by that is that the trade unions who are affiliated with the Labour Party are entitled to an input and to have a say, but it has to be on a basis that is not abused by either the union or the Labour Party. The relationship has to be honest and pragmatic with an open dialogue. Trade unions won't always get everything they want from a Labour Government, but those who are affiliated know that a Labour government is better than the current political environment we are operating in.

Ultimately, it is about honesty, tolerance and accepting that the trade union movement cannot run the Labour Party. I'm a trade unionist; I am not a Labour politician. My opportunity is to try and influence Labour party policy, but as part of a broader family. We as affiliates are entitled to use the internal processes to influence policy but that has to be in recognition of the wider Labour movement family - the unions are a vital part of the Labour movement but they are a wing of it. The key message is whilst we campaign for policy we will have to accept different views and like any family it is a settlement made out of constructive dialogue.

This article was first featured in Volume 19, Issue 1 | Autumn 2015 of Anticipations

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