What do the words trade union mean to you? Do they conjour up the
Winter of Discontent, the miners, flying pickets, Arthur Scargill and
Red Robbo? Or do you see them as a necessary voice of the worker in
Whatever your thoughts, the unions are back. Membership is on the
increase, new technology has been embraced, services to members are many
and varied -and strikes are now seen only as a last resort.
Alongside this, unions are now much keener on public relations,
marketing and their image.
There are think-tanks and seminars covering the subject and major
So, the times they are a-changing and according to Peter Rendall, The PR
Organisation chairman, those who deal with unions will have to change
He recently told delegates at the Institute of Public Relations
Conference 2000: 'Relationships between managements and employees have
been transformed since the turbulent 1970s when Britain was blighted by
strikes and other industrial action.
'Legislation has played an important part but much of the credit must go
to enlightened bosses whose initiatives have resulted in management and
employees working together with common purpose.'
Rendall says experience shows that there are often significant
differences between top management's idealised view and how things
really are. PR practitioners can play a vital role in assessing the
company's culture and highlighting key elements that need to change.
Where there is a gulf between what management preaches and what
employees know it practices, a big obstacle to progress is the
credibility gap that must be bridged.
'Certain positive initiatives can be taken which change employees'
perceptions by having a profound effect on their everyday experiences.
For example, eliminate outdated practices and procedures that perpetuate
the destructive 'them and us' syndrome,' Rendall adds.
Another name to bring a shudder to management a few years ago was the
TUC - the Trades Union Congress, an umbrella for trade unions. It was
founded in 1868.
Nigel Stanley, TUC head of campaigns and communications, said trade
union membership was at its peak in 1979 with 12 million people being
members of TUC affiliated unions. The figure now stands at 6.7
The main reason for the drop in membership was the sharp change in
industry and the decline in the public sector in the late 1970s and
Since then employment has recovered but the unions have found it harder
to get into new workplaces that have not got a tradition of union
membership, but slowly more are being recruited. The TUC has reported
that union membership has increased this year for the first time in 20
The secretary general of the TUC has always been one of the most
powerful and influential figures in trade union circles and the current
holder of the job is John Monks.
'Employment is rising and the unions and the people have changed. Back
in the 1970s it was seen as an 'us and them' situation but the modern
union view is that there should be a partnership between management and
the workforce,' he said.
Monks points to the Tesco supermarket chain as a good example of a
company with good working links with a staff that contained many union
'Tesco has concentrated on its staff relationships and it sees that as a
'The trade unions are not just a voice for collective bargaining. We
backed the case for paternity leave after a baby is born and unions in
general are getting more involved in other services for their members,
such as financial and legal advice.
'New Labour is not seen as being as hostile to the unions as Margaret
This government is prepared to listen,' Monks added.
Rendall underlines this: 'New laws introduced by New Labour underpin
government plans to increase workers' rights.
These laws have prompted American-style 'union busters' to regard
Britain as fertile ground for their activities.'
In June this year, parts of the Employment Relations Act 1999 about
statutory recognition of trade unions came into effect. Trade unions are
now granted automatic recognition in the workplace if more than 50 per
cent of employees vote to join and it applies to any firm with more than
'It is the first time union recognition has been enshrined in British
law,' said Rendall.
Both Monks and Stanley agreed that the style and quality of union
publications, marketing and advertising has risen sharply with some
first class material being produced.
One of the smallest but most famous unions is ASLEF - the Associated
Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. Around 16,000 strong, it
has also been one of the most fiery in the past and is playing an
important part in the current discussions over rail safety.
As a specialised union confined to those in the driving cabs of
Britain's railways and those who will be promoted into the jobs, it does
not have to go out and recruit in new workplaces as larger unions
With the privatisation of the railways, ASLEF has negotiated agreements
with all the new companies that run trains and light rail systems.
The union was founded in 1880 to represent locomotive drivers and
firemen in the steam-age Victorian railway.
It has always been a campaigning union and as well as keeping a constant
eye on rail safety it is looking at the consequences of the
fragmentation of the railway system. It argues for greater investment in
both passenger and freight systems and wants a return to public
Being a smaller union has not stopped it using the latest technology to
further its aims. Like all other unions, ASLEF is concerned with its
image and while still fighting for members in the workplace, it has not
ignored their needs away from railways and has a full service of advice
'We have improved our image like other unions and I don't think the
public now tend to blame the driver for all the problems on the railway.
People are realising that many problems stem from management and
privatisation,' says general secretary Mick Rix.
Andrew Murray is the head of ASLEF's one-man communications
He is involved in lobbying the Government over rail safety issues and
communicating to the union's members through the ASLEF journal.
One of the best known and most powerful unions in Britain is the
Transport and General Workers -now usually shortened to the T&G. It also
has one of the most famous leaders, Bill Morris.
While not the biggest overall, the T&G is the biggest general union and
claims to trace its ancestry back to the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the six
Dorset farm workers who suffered transportation to Australia for forming
an embryo union in 1834.
Like other unions, it suffered a drop in membership but the figure is
now rising and it stands at almost 900,000. It has 7,000 branches up and
down the country and one in Gibraltar. There are eight regional
The T&G has seen industries such as manufacturing - from where it
recruited many members - change drastically. It has been active in
getting into new industries and recruiting.
'One of the fastest growing work areas is in call centres where
thousands of phone calls are handled on behalf of various businesses,'
said a union spokesman. TUC figures show that three per cent of the
British workforce are employed in call centres.
Another place for a new membership drive was among the workers running
the Channel Tunnel. 'There is now a small but growing presence among
Channel Tunnel workers,' said the spokesman.
New members have been flocking to the union in the South-west of
Alan Swales, the union's senior regional industrial organiser, says: 'I
believe the reason is due to the new employment rights of workers to be
recognised and be represented in their workplace.
'This has given new confidence to workers and more and more people are
accepting that unions, in particular the T&G, have much to offer their
members not only at the place of work but with the many additional
services that are available.'
With so many members, communication is vital and like many organisations
the T&G operates with the latest technology, though it doesn't carry out
as much advertising as Unison.
'We felt it was best to get away from leaflets. Only two per cent of
members joined because they had seen a leaflet of ours,' said the
With the upsurge in modern communications, the union has created a
campaigns and communication unit which includes a journals section and
the press office.
Most of the work is done in-house, but the union does use outside
designers for advertising and advice on adverts.
Like most other unions, the T&G has its own web site and there to
welcome prospective members is Morris. One of the things a new member
will learn is that though the union does much more for its members now,
it is still committed to ensuring the best possible pay and conditions
'Above all, the T&G is rooted in the communities and workplace of the
people we represent. The T&G never stands still. It is winning for its
members throughout the country and in every workplace,' says Morris.
'The image of the Winter of Discontent, the miners, and Arthur Scargill
is seared into people's memories but we, like the other unions, have
been remaking our image.'
The union has set up a helpline to answer members legal queries and
there is advice on finance, health, family support. There is also more
of a customer care ethos these days.
'Strikes are seen as a last resort, not the first one.
We have a commitment to our members and to try to sit down with
management and sort out problems as and when they arise,' Morris
T&G's nine-strong campaigns and communications team is headed by Karen
Unison is the result of a July 1993 merger of three unions in the public
sector. It has 1.3 million members and is also enjoying a boost in
Like most modern organisations, it has embraced new technology and is
using it to advance its cause. Unison has advertised in the press and on
television and radio to encourage membership and to put over its point
of view. Union activists can be paged and communication is the name of
Unison has a 20-strong press and marketing team which is run by head of
communications Mary McGuire.
Rodney Bickerstaffe, Unison general secretary, says most of its members
came from the public sector workforce, in local government, health and
'One of our aims is to recruit young people as they do not have the
tradition of joining a union that the older generation had,' he
'We have to overcome this image of being old people who like the sound
of our own voices and do nothing for our members,' he adds.
The young potential union member has been wooed in the past by a pop
festival that was staged by Unison with such groups as Travis, Ash,
Space and Divine Comedy taking part and attracted 10,000 people.
The union used all available techniques to get its message across at the
festival. The bands themselves announced they supported the demand for a
With a strong advertising campaign running when required, Unison does
use outside advertising agencies to prepare adverts for whatever media
is to be used. It was one of the first unions to use television
'The attitude to unions is changing. They are not seen as they have been
in the past. We represent and advise our members on many subjects such
as the law and finance,' says Bickerstaffe.