Wednesday 30 January 2008

Getting members involved

One of my bugbears is when people see "organising" as nothing more than recruitment.

If organising is to be successful it has to include recruitment, but it also has to mean getting members active and involved, training and developing them, as well as building structures so that members and reps can sort things out for themselves.

I posted recently about my concerns about the low numbers of candidates and nominations for the UNITE Executive Council (NEC) and what that reflected about the levels of active participation in our union - from the workplace and local branch up.

The Regional Sector Conferences I've attended this week have made me think more about this.

Our Electrical Engineering, Electronics & IT (EEE&IT) sector has about 40,000 members - slightly less than the entire Fire Brigades Union (FBU). This is one of the smaller sectors in the Amicus section of UNITE. Yet many of our Regional Sector Conferences are attended by only a handful of reps. I don't know the FBU structure, but I doubt very much that a key regional meeting, held only every two years, would only muster a handful! Why?

One factor is undoubtedly that all most reps get is a letter telling them there's a conference. Nobody talks to them about it. Nobody explains what it's for or why it would be worth attending. Nobody gives them encouragement. Most reps stick it in the bin.

This is not how you would organise anything you wanted to be a success. It is well established that speaking to someone is a far more powerful tool for getting them to do something than a letter, email or web site (though these all have their place). If you really want something to be a success you use multiple methods of communication. Just compare the deluge of letter, magazines and DVDs encouraging us to vote Labour at election time with the almost zero effort put into building attendance at Sector Conferences or Area Quarterlies and it would be hard for any rep to escape the conclusion that the union didn't regard them as important. This neglect of lay member involvement is wrong and has to change if our union is to be a success.

Some sectors, including our own, have the added problem that nobody knows what they are and it's nobody's problem.

I would hazard a guess that the FBU has more than one officer. I would hazard a guess that FBU officers and activists know where the various brigades are and where the fire stations are within that.

Compare that with EEE&IT. We have one National Officer. Within any region, there are hundreds of workplaces in our sector. Responsibility for them is scattered amongst nearly all the Regional Officers (for understandable geographical reasons). The officer charged with running the Regional Sector Conference or Committee might, if they are lucky, know about a couple of key workplaces in the sector. Because "sector" isn't a concept they use day-to-day when dealing with disciplinaries, grievances, negotiations and disputes, they may not even realise which sector the workplaces they deal with are in. As a result, even if all officers prioritised building lay member involvement, the odds of them thinking of calling the relevant reps to have a chat about going to their sector conference are vanishingly slim.

So what's the effect? Even though we're in the biggest union in the country, it can feel small, weak and ineffective to a rep on the ground. This saps their confidence and enthusiasm, making it harder to get people involved and to build the union.

As we go into UNITE we have to get a grip of the fundamental task of involving, motivating, organising and inspiring our members so that we can win things and grow.

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