The gut reaction has been: “Arghh! Two million members. That’s one-third of union members isn’t it?”
They’re calling it the ‘fighting back union’. What does that mean? Batten down the hatches prepare to repel borders better still, run for the hills.
Calm down dear, it’s only a commercial. As with any product, all you have to do is not buy into the hype. Repeat after me: this is no big deal – certainly not in the immediate future anyway.
It’s true to say that when the vote was counted, unions trumpeted the result as a whopping 70.1% in favour and 29.9% against. But this is rather less impressive when you realise that there was only a 27% turnout.
With the briefest of counts on my fingers, even I can see many union members don’t see this as something they really want to be involved in. Either that, or they just don’t care. Detractors will compare this to the general election voting statistics, but this is only fuel to the fire – because we know how little people care for politics.
It’s not like the unions didn’t do their best to get people involved, however. Massive publicity campaigns called on members to build “the most powerful and influential union that the UK and Ireland have ever seen”. Even Transport and General Workers’ Union (T&G) communications rather presumptuously had a ‘New Union’ logo on the bottom of them before the vote was even taken.
Undeterred by the lack of support, the unions claim this vote gave a “powerful mandate” for action. Sadly, this just isn’t true. Not only did three out of four people stay away, the total number of ‘ayes’ was well down on the last time there was a big union merger. When the AEEU and MSF joined forces to form Amicus, it was supported by 84% and 80% of the unions respectively, with an overall turnout of 31%. Perhaps the real mandate this apathy gives is for a serious change in how the union goes about its business.
One leading business type mooted the idea to me that this lack of solidarity is one final victory for Margaret Thatcher. Since everyone is now either a home-owner or struggling to become one, they no longer want to risk their livelihoods and homes by striking. Surely even the Iron Lady didn’t foresee this when she tried to get everyone to buy their council houses, did she?
If this is right, then it means the danger to employers will come from a different angle – if the unions are smart.
In this day and age there is no better way to pile on the pressure than a good publicity stunt – with media in tow, obviously. Just look at the coverage the GMB got when it sent a camel to visit Damon Buffini, the boss of private equity firm Permira, outside his church. (Rich man, heaven, camel, eye of needle – you get the point.)
So there’s still every reason as an employer to keep your fingers clean (aside from the obvious moral and legal obligations). Especially when you have a 24-hour media then you have journalists desperate for something to fill the gaps and there’s nothing better than some random camel action to plug a 30-second hole or a few inches of column space.
But all this relies on the super-union not succumbing to in-fighting rather than getting the job done. Any notion that tempers aren’t going to fray when they try and work out whether the regional organisers will be from Amicus or the T&G, who will head up research, et cetera, et cetera, is nonsense. This happens with any mergers be they on the industry side of the fence or the union side.
The grass is no greener. I’ve even heard a great tale about one area of the North East where the big fallout is over who gets the best parking spaces.
Yet these issues are not the only ones. The big question of how you get anyone under the age of 35 to begin to care about trade unionism is a rather important issue. The average age of a union member is mid-50s. If you put a representative group of unionists in a room with an average group of Tories and made them all promise to shut up, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Unions essentially haven’t changed in 100 years – certainly not in terms of their hierarchies anyway. Businesses, on the other hand, are in a constant state of change to ensure they continue to thrive.
So while union bigwigs Derek Simpson and Tony Woodley quietly wrangle over who will be the next general secretary, maybe the real question should be whether they should have this position at all. Is it time for a chief executive or chief operating officer?
Real challenges lie ahead for this mighty new army. But battles have been lost over much less – especially when only one in four of the troops is actually willing to fight.
By Michael Millar, business journalist and author
What do you think?
How can the unions engage with the under-35s? E-mail your response to [email protected]