Seize the post-Covid moment – unionise, unionise, unionise

Union Matters

Friday 10th July 2020

Celebrating our movement’s successes, connecting workers’ common causes and linking our organising traditions to the realities of the modern workplace will be the key to unionising the UK’s unorganised workers, urged TUC leader Frances O’Grady and our own general secretary Dave Ward during last night’s CWU facebook live broadcast.

On the opening day of the innovative TUC Organise 2020 event, our union’s leader and the general secretary of the TUC discussed a range of current topics before an audience of around 5,000 CWU members and activists, with an overall focus on increasing membership and taking trade unionism into every workplace in the land.

Frances talked of how it had been the TUC and affiliated unions who had negotiated with the Government back in March to get the job protection scheme put in place, protecting some nine million jobs which would otherwise have been lost.

The trade union movement should take credit for making this happen and, now that the country is starting to recover from the worst of the pandemic, trade unions must make sure that jobs are protected going forward and that our movement remains an integral part of the national conversation.

As TUC leader, Frances has a “very down to earth” view as to how this can be done. Noting that some eight out of 10 private-sector workers are not unionised, and that the nine million jobs that the TUC-negotiated scheme has protected are largely in that sector, she urged: “For goodness sake, we’ve got to convert them into trade union members.”

Cash announced by the Government this week “must not be money to the boardrooms – but must be money for jobs,” Frances continued, citing infrastructure projects, housing and a green new deal in manufacturing as areas where large-scale public investment can boost jobs and also improve our country.

And then, highlighting the struggles being faced by around half a million young people leaving full-time education and entering the world of work for the first time this year, she insisted: “We can’t have a repeat of the 1980s when we had mass youth unemployment.”

In his comments, Dave Ward said that there was “no doubt that trade unions have become part of the daily conversation,” and added that, as well as pushing for the job protection measures, had trade unions not also asserted themselves in terms of workplace precautions a lot more workers would have died.

During this recent period, the focus on our key workers and the greater profile of trade unionism have “given us a platform,” Dave pointed out, and posed the question: “How do we bring this forward?”

Campaigning together and co-ordinating our efforts on issues common to all workers was one important part of the strategy we need, he explained, while the CWU itself will be focussing on taking trade unionism fully into all parts of those sectors of the economy that our union operates within – using the example of our agreements in our ‘core’ companies to make the case to workers that union organisation means better pay, improved terms and condition and stronger job security.

“As well as defending our members’ terms and conditions, we’re also trying to harness the whole trade union movement to get a better deal for workers – and we’re never going to have a better opportunity than right now to do that and move forward,” said Dave, and called for a nationwide TUC Day of Action in pursuit of the New Deal for Workers agenda within the next 12 months.

This would not be a General Strike, but a call for every trade unionist in the UK to take some form of collective action together, on the same day – in various forms on the basis of what is practical and achievable. The aim being to actively involve everyone across the country.

A General Strike was not a practical proposition with the currently low level of private-sector membership, said Frances, and her suggestion for the UK trade union movement’s focus was to “all rally round on the issue of zero-hour contracts,” and that “all unions can make a contribution to getting them banned.

“This is a common theme which can unite workers. Together, we can start to push back, and we have to use our collective power if we’re going to win.”

On the practicalities of organising and recruiting more trade union members, Chris Webb, who was chairing the discussion, asked how our movement can innovate to improve its digital engagement and build upon our traditional methods.

In response to this, Dave pointed to the increasing numbers of workers who don’t have a specific workplace as such and who work on either a mobile or a remote basis – and that the Covid-19 crisis had increased this trend, particularly among the groups of workers who the CWU and other unions are seeking to recruit.

“We have to use digital technology and I’m quite encouraged by some of the new models of collectivism that are emerging,” he said, adding that the “fundamental link” between the frontline rep and the membership must be strengthened both digitally and also in terms of direct face-to-face contact.

“The reason the CWU does well in ballots is because of that close relationship and technology can start to bridge the gap with non-unionised workers,” he explained.

Frances said that the trade union movement, as a whole, was becoming more appreciative of the benefits of digital engagement, citing the difficulties for many – especially those with childcare responsibilities – of getting to a physical meeting and that meeting digitally was a better alternative in many instances.

Both Frances and Dave concluded their comments with a reminder of the need to broadcast the many successes of the trade union movement, with the TUC leader making the point that “Sometimes we forget to say the basics about why we join – unions win for workers, better pay, terms and conditions and the evidence is there.

“We need to put ourselves in the shoes of the workers who we want to join and if I wasn’t part of this organisation, this would make me want to join.”

And Dave added: We need to say these things a lot more. Every union should point to big wins we’ve had.”


·  Don’t miss this afternoon’s TUC Organise 2020 session on Creating a Culture of Innovation at 4pm, featuring our head of comms Chris Webb

·  Join in with tomorrow’s TUC Organise 2020 session at 1pm, on Bringing Forward the Next Generation of Reps featuring our NEC Young Worker representative Luke Elgar