The pace of change in workplaces across the world is perhaps faster than any of us can remember. For those of us who organise what we have traditionally known as public services workplaces today bear little resemblance to those of 10 or even 5 years ago. The truth is that workplaces today will have very little resemblance to those that we will be faced with in the next 5 or 10 years.
What doesn’t seem to change, except for the worse, is the attitude of employers but also the way that we organise. many of our traditional organising strategies were designed for workplaces that in many instances do longer exist. These strategies were largely, certainly in the public services, based on organising the collective. While there are still many workers for whom this approach is relevant there are also many workers who no longer work as part of a collective workforce or who, when they do go into a workplace, see completely different people from the ones they saw the last time they were there. This breaks down the spirit of collectivism on which trade unions were built.
In the UK we have many public service workers whose only workplace is the home of the person for whom they are providing a service. Home care workers are often expected to get in their own car on a morning, drive, in their own time to the “client” then deliver the service before going on to the next person. They can go weeks, if not forever, without ever meeting another colleague. The question with these workers as with the other workers whose working practices have been so radically changed is how do we organise.
I believe that the first thing that we must do is not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Where our traditional organising methods are appropriate then we should use them. I suppose what I am saying here is that when we look at a workplace as a potential organising target we must exercise a flexible eye. What worked in one workplace will never necessarily work in another even similar workplace. What we must do is exercise maximum flexibility in the way that we go about our organising. There is no one way to organise a workplace just a plethora of tools that we can draw on at any time. That’s why UNISON is developing an innovative method of accessing the many organising tools available to our organisers.
We must also draw on and develop the excellent organising potential of social media such as twitter and Facebook and the arguably even more important tool of email. There has been a lot of talk about how social media can be best utilised by the trade union movement. The reality is that this has boiled down to the occasional email when we want members to do something for us while twitter and Facebook have largely been used as vehicles for media releases. There is so much more potential for the use social media to aid organising. We have already found this in UNISON and are developing plans for a massive extension of social media in our organising campaigns.
The argument sometimes gets put that the most vulnerable workers do not have access to the means to access social media. That’s not our experience. Around a quarter of the entire British population have access to a smartphone. This number will only grow in the years to come. The challenge more often than not is how to stay in touch with our members and how to ensure that they can keep in touch with us. If we can improve our presence on social media so that we offer another gateway to our movement that can only be good. It certainly doesn’t replace the traditional ways that we organise it simply offers another route to trade union membership and, indeed, activity.
If trade unions are ever to meet the challenges that now face us and to build the resistance of the 99% against the domination of the 1% we must be much more imaginative and flexible in devising and implementing our organising strategies. Times are changing fast and so must the trade union movement.
Roger McKenzie is assistant general secretary of UNISON with responsibility for organising and recruitment
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