Friday, September 16, 2011

TUC Congress 2011: Unions21 Fringe on The Future of Union Image

Union21 used this fringe to launch a viral recruitment video which I missed but I was present for a panel debate on “The Future of Union Image”. The panel included left to right Captain SKA (producer of this music video); Kerry McCarthy MP, Sue Ferns (Chair), author David Seymour and Luke Crawley (Bectu assistant general secretary).

Luke warned unions from using too much jargon, and did not accept that unions need to change their image; the real problem is the barrage of anti-union propaganda in the media. Even the Guardian and Observer are “ambivalent” and join in the attacks when the unions threaten action. Unions need to prove to potential members that they can win or protect things such as the recent success Bectu have had using the National minimum wage. 

David Seymour (author of “Why join a Union”) spoke next and countered that the unions have always had a bad media image. Even the old Daily Mirror was anti-union at times. Unions don’t understand that their members have changed. They use to be predominately blue collar men. They are now predominately white collar and middle class. Unions think that they are still “red in tooth and claw”. The “Bob Crow” image is the one people have of unions and industrial action. Need to find new ways of taking action short of strikes and build solidarity with consumer and workers.

Kerry agreed that the government and the media distort the image but the unions must look to themselves as well since too often the image of the union is macho, aggressive and not friendly to women. Trade unionists are members but also consumers – they should be treated in the round. In recent successful campaigns she took part in a care service was kept in house because the union got the relatives of clients to speak out.  

Captain SKA has only recently joined a union. He is a professional self employed musician and producer. He produced the “Liar, Liar” video for only £300 but it took lots of favours from his friends in the industry and it swallowed up a huge amount of time in promoting before the unions stepped in to help out. He had not been politically active at all beforehand but had been to well supported music concerts in Europe in the past which had been organised by political bodies but had not been overtly political events. He is surprised that there is not more opposition to this government by musicians. 

I thought that this panel debate on the union image was really interesting but we ran out of time and I had to run off back to attend Congress before the Q&A and so was not able to ask the “bleeding obvious” about what Unions should do when faced with an ideological attack against their members by an employer who refuse to engage or bargain in good faith (public sector pensions?).

There is surely simply no alternative to strike action over such a matter of serious substance when all possible alternatives have been exhausted and members are up and able for a fight.   In these circumstances it's the same now as it has always been.

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