FOCUS: PUBLIC SECTOR PR - Unions strike back. Aided by new technology and services, union membership is now on the increase. Geoff Sawyer discovers how the major players have managed to turn their image around to attract new recruits

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

advertising campaigns.

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For example, eliminate outdated practices and procedures that perpetuate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

early 1980s.

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

valuable asset.

'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

Thatcher's government.

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

20 employees.

'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

and help.

'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

for members.

'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

the game.

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

the utilities.

'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

living wage.

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.

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