Yesterday the government published its statistical bulletin on trade union membership. The bulletin shows that the level of overall union members has decreased by just over 4 percent, the largest annual fall recorded since the bulletin began in 1995.
Education still shows the biggest density by industry but has also seen a decline in trade union membership.
It seems important to ask why? There are unlikely to be simple answers to this question.
The changing nature of work itself, the changing nature of society, globalisation and the political controversy it generates will undoubtedly be part of the analysis.
The challenge for trade unionism
It might be argued that new information and communication technologies are unseating traditional policy making, spheres of influence and public engagement.
Representation through trade unionism which once shaped the professional identities of teachers and leaders, is changing. New forms of representation are taking shape around our traditional trade unions and professional associations. Policy making, influence and public engagement are becoming more networked with the rise of social media.
The solidarities created out of trade union structures that influenced and shaped government policy making are now competing with non-traditional forms. Technology is already providing the opportunities for individuals and groups to create and share policy and practice, and to pursue creative forms of public engagement.
Trade unionism defined the pathway to the corridors of power and influence in the late twentieth and possibly early twenty-first century. But the world has changed around us. Our hierarchical organisational structures may not have kept up with our fast-changing society.
The opportunity for a renewal of trade unionism
This is a powerful challenge to the trade union movement. Our instincts may be to defend our right of influence while deriding those without a constituency. But in the new networked society, perhaps effective trade unionism will need to embrace and even resemble networks.
Trade unionism is important in that it will always protect its members’ employment rights. But it is so much more than this. Trade unionism offers professional association – by which I mean our need to belong to something bigger than ourselves.
It offers affinity and kinship.
An opportunity to debate the big social, political and economic policy issues of the day.
A way of speaking collectively with authority to the government of the day.
But we need to show ourselves capable of responding to our members’ needs to co-create. We need to do things a bit differently. We need to develop different forms of engagement outside of traditional trade union structures.
I believe collective action has never been more important. But it is not the collective action of the past. It is our commitment to act together for the common good, speaking on behalf of our members and acting on behalf of children and young people.
ASCL’s membership is rising. At the end of May, it stood at a record total of 18,765.