What difference will Unifi merging with Amicus make?
– What Amicus brings to the party is the ability to be able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the employer and, because of the sheer size and strength of it, look the Government straight in the eye as well.
Amicus will be a huge organisation – with more than 1 million members. Just about every single workplace in the UK has been touched by Amicus.
Specifically for the finance sector, Unifi will combine our 150,000 members with the 60,000 Amicus members to become the biggest single sector within Amicus.
For the first time in the history of financial unions, we’ve got the vast bulk of union members under one roof. We hope other unions will see that’s something they want to get involved with as well.
Importantly for our members, it now means that if they do leave the industry, they don’t have to lose their trade union membership, because Amicus organises in all areas of the workplace.
I can’t overplay the importance of Amicus in the terms of the fabric of our civil society, in terms of employers, multinationals, government, parliament and Europe. I don’t think a union has ever had these points on an even keel, powerfully established, with the resources behind it to make it happen.
You speak a lot about partnerships with employers, but when Derek Simpson [general secretary of Amicus] came in, he said he was going to give Tony Blair ‘a f***ing migraine’. How can you reconcile these approaches?
– We have to employ all different kinds of tactics to ensure that working people get their just desserts. What Derek Simpson was saying at the beginning was that he is not going to be a patsy or sign up to sweetheart agreements that simply give the employers what they want.
At the same time, the idea of having a partnership with the employer to improve the lot of employees has got to be the way forward. But if the employer is going to play silly buggers, we can play that game to.
Businesses tend to look at the short term; they look at the profits one quarter ahead. We look at the medium to long term – for example, that’s why corporate social responsibility is very important to us. It is also why we’re concerned about the concept of outsourcing – it might appear to be a good thing in the short term because it saves money on salaries, etc, but companies are storing up huge problems for themselves, which will damage shareholder value.
It is interesting you use the phrase ‘shareholder value’ – is it important unions speak the language of the employers?
– A lot of our members in the financial sector are shareholders. Our members are employees, shareholders and they are customers. We all want successful companies and we then want to share in that success.
The vast majority of companies who have trade unions actively involved will tell you that their workplace is a better place because of the involvement of the unions.
How do you square that with the steady decline in union membership?
– The decline in union membership has been happening for some time. We are not entirely relevant to younger workers. Whatever I might think about myself and the role I play, I’m nearly 50. For a lot of young people coming into work, I’m old enough to be their dad. So being in a trade union is a bit like being in an organisation where your dad is telling you what to do.
Ten to 15 years ago, if an employee had a problem at work, they would go to their union rep and they’d wait for their union to deal with the issue for them. Now, if people have a problem and they want information and advice then they’ll go and sort it out themselves.
We’ve got to be more accepting that people will engage on an individual basis, not on a group basis. We need to be available to members 24/7, seven days a week. We are not that at the moment, but we are moving there.
How does the rest of the Amicus leadership team feel about this?
– That is why Derek Simpson will go to Glastonbury [for the music festival]. He will go to talk about trade unions and to get young people involved in the debate about trade unions.
It’s very important that young people get an opportunity to have that debate, even if it’s just to say ‘hang on a minute, what relevance are you to me?’
I may have more radical ideas than some and I acknowledge it is a thin line between the visionary and the lunatic. I have always been the type who wanted to push boundaries a little bit. But I am pretty clear that people [in Amicus] are receptive to new ideas. How you implement those ideas – that’s where the tough work comes. You have a democracy to deal with, a heritage to deal with and people have to be convinced it is going to develop and makes things different but better.
We have to look at marketing propaganda in the same way companies look at it. We have to be able to say to people ‘don’t base what you think about us on what you’ve read in the media; base what you think about us on what we do for you’.
Maybe we have to be very inventive and really radical and say ‘you’re automatically a member of the union – come along and see what we can do for you and then come and sign up’.
That has huge repercussions. I don’t think a week goes by when every worker in this country doesn’t have at least one query about their employment. What we need to do is make sure they see the trade unions as the natural home to get the information from.
If we can’t persuade workers to join the union in the first place, maybe we can sell them information. They can then taste the goods – £125-a-year [for membership] is nothing compared to a lawyer who might cost you £150 an hour. We insure our house, car, even pets – why don’t we insure our employment status? That’s what unions do.