Throwing off the shackles of Scargill

The London Underground strikes that greeted commuters in the new year have attracted a mixture of public indifference and lack of sympathy for transport union RMT.

Meanwhile, swathes of negative coverage of the strikes, in this case in protest of staffing levels, have certainly put union bosses on the back foot.

Indeed, a long-term erosion of trust in trade unions has forced the movement to adapt. Images of Arthur Scargill, communism and extreme leftist attitudes are shackles many are desperate to lose.

Moreover, the decline of UK manufacturing and the more recent convergence of the main political parties have triggered the need for unions to change their strategies to gain support.

Former Observer industrial editor George Pitcher – who last month sold his stake in Luther Pendragon, the agency he co-founded – says domestic politics has long since moved on from being about capitalist versus socialist ideals. 'Unions, with their roots in the left, have had to evolve too, dropping traditional methods of exacting change.

'Blair and Cameron are moving their parties to the centre to broaden appeal,' he adds. 'Unions have to do the same and focus on terms and conditions and minimum wage issues rather than referring to socialism.'

Changing strategies are also based on a fundamental ideological shift. Workers simply aren't as ideological as they used to be. Pitcher says: 'A Labour voter in the 1970s would support industrial action as a matter of course. But the agenda is more narrow now; it's about individual issues.'

Reaffirming links
The Warwick Agreement, struck between unions and the Labour Party in 2004 as a precursor to last year's general election, reaffirmed links between New Labour and unions in general. It guaranteed improvements to NHS employment, pay reviews and concessions to British manufacturing.

But the question remains, how effective are union comms departments in furthering their agenda with government and corporations?

'Communication is much better among the larger unions,' says BBC business and industry correspondent Hugh Pym. 'But many of the medium-sized and smaller ones are missing out by not being proactive.'

Pym says that for unions to campaign effectively for change, they have to become more media savvy. 'Amicus is proactive, sending us information before things happen. But some of the smaller unions don't even have mobile phone cover for their press offices.'

'Unions are still associated with industrial action and job losses,' says Ken Penton, the comms chief at recently formed union Community, which achieved statutory sick pay for workers in the footwear industry without ruffling any feathers. 'But we try to speak positively, talk about successes and explain how a better working environment improves productivity.'

Last August, airline caterer Gate Gourmet showed how negative publicity can severely tarnish the reputation of a major company as mass staff walkouts disrupted British Airways' summer schedule.
'It was a disaster for BA,' says Arnold Group MD Tim Arnold. 'In situations such as this, union PROs can help keep the pressure on and BA was pilloried in the media.'

But if unions still wield power, it is perhaps not reflected in membership levels. In the 1980s TUC membership stood at over 12 million. Now it is around half that number.

'One third of the UK workforce is in a union,' notes Andrew Pakes, former president of the National Union of Students and now a prospective Labour councillor. 'But only one in ten 16 to 24-year-olds is in a union.'

The picture at manufacturing union Amicus is slightly more positive, but tempered by a lack of youth.

'Last year we employed more members than ever before, increasing size by ten per cent,' says Amicus communications director Richard O'Brien. 'But most of those new members are 35 to 45-year-olds.'

Youth focus
Amicus is embarking on a campaign to address the problem. It established a presence at the Glastonbury festival last year, and is this year beginning a national 'Battle of the Bands' competition through universities to reach a younger audience.

Unions, though, clearly face an uphill battle to improve their image. 'Scargill's legacy, however faded, still casts a shadow over the image of the union,' explains Pakes.

'The press never help in that respect,' adds Stanley. 'But there's been a big decline in strikes overall. Unions are less confrontational now, more image conscious.'

And improved communication has gone hand in hand with changes to the workforce. 'We looked at the growth of call centre employment and angled it as "the new factories'',' says TUC head of campaigns and communications Nigel Stanley. 'It's the sort of image the media and public understand.'

And O'Brien cites Marconi as a good example of how highlighting weaknesses within a company through discussion with the press can be as effective as a strike.

'Marconi management ran the company into the ground and we destroyed them for that,' says O'Brien. 'The day of the strike is dead. These days, with a sensible PR campaign, we can blow a company up.'

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