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25 January 2012

UK unions report recruitment bonanza from pensions strike

Government helps act as recruiting sergeant

UK unions are reporting a surge in membership - thanks to the recent huge public sector pensions strike, according to the February issue of Labour Research, the trade union and employment research magazine.

And it appears that government ministers' pronouncements on the pensions issue and on the strike, which took place on 30 November last year, have helped act as a recruiting sergeant for public sector unions.

Meanwhile, at least one union reports that the strike has also reaped membership gains among private sector workers, encouraging into the union's ranks workers from private sector companies where pensions are also under threat.

Labour Research contacted a range of public sector unions, whose members took part in the strike, to ask what the strike's impact had had on union recruitment and organisation.

Bumper recruitment day

It seems that government ministers have, however unintentionally, proved particularly effective recruitment tools for the unions.

A spokesperson for the UCU college and university lecturers' union told Labour Research that in particular, 28 November, the day education secretary Michael Gove made a speech to the conservative think tank Policy Exchange describing some union leaders as "militants, itching for a fight", was "a bumper recruitment day" for the union.

With an overall membership of around 122,000, the UCU reported that around 2,500 people joined the union in November 2011.

The UNISON public services union had already noted this effect on recruitment, pointing to the way in which Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, had proved himself a top recruiter for the union.

In the days leading up to the 30 November day of action, UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said in a statement: "The applications to join spike every time Danny Alexander is on his feet in the House, talking about his plans for public sector pensions."

And Labour Research found that UNISON's experience of membership gains during the pensions strike was far from unique.

The magazine reveals that the pensions day of action, its build-up and aftermath have had a hugely positive impact on union recruitment and organisation.

One, the 127-year-old ATL teaching union, whose members have never taken national strike action before 2011, described the level of engagement and collective organisation around the strike as "unprecedented", leading to "significant" gains in union organisation.

Private sector gains

Another, the GMB general union, said that the dispute had reaped gains among private sector workers, encouraging into the union's ranks workers from large companies where pensions are also under threat.

The strike, the biggest in a generation, was called in protest at government proposals to make changes to public sector pension schemes, resulting in a "triple squeeze" on workers who would have to pay more and work longer for a lower pension.

Unions estimate that some two million public services workers from 30 unions took part in the TUC day of action. The day followed earlier action in June when members of the PCS civil service union, the NUT and ATL teaching unions and the UCU lecturers' union went on strike over the planned changes.

The GMB was among those recording a membership surge, reporting that 12,000 joined in November 2011 and 8,000 in October, compared to 7,000 and 6,000 respectively in the same months in 2010.

"These are normally quiet months for organising and recruitment," said GMB national organiser Martin Smith.

He added: "The difference was made up almost entirely by staff in local government and the NHS joining up, although by far and away the single biggest occupational group were staff working in schools where many are affected not only by the pensions proposals, but job cuts and pay freezes as a result of academies."

In addition, the GMB also saw a spike in new members joining from large private sector companies where pensions are also under threat.

Smith said: "Despite the government's efforts to divide public and private sector workers, we are finding that the pensions battle is also having an impact on recruitment in the private sector, particularly in large companies where final salary schemes still exist and are defendable."

Long-standing non-members sign up

The 36,000-member Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP) - a union not known for industrial militancy - said the strike had had a significant impact on its recruitment figures, with many long-standing non-members joining.

The 30 November strike represented only the second time in the CSP's 117-year history, and the first time since 1980, that the unions' members have taken industrial action.

The union pointed to a 15% membership increase among qualified physiotherapists at a time when membership might otherwise have been expected to drop because of job losses and the increase in unemployment among graduates.

The 2011 strikes were the first time that members of the 160,000-member ATL teaching union had taken part in national strike action in its 127 years. The ATL also saw recruitment increase.

ATL head of recruitment and organisation Mark Holding said: "At the end of November 2011, membership was 5% higher than at the same time last year."

And, he said, in the two months leading up to the 30 June action, during balloting and preparations for strike action, "we recruited twice as many new members than in the two months the previous year".

Unprecedented engagement

He added: "In the month of November, in the run-up to the day of action, we recruited four times more new members than the previous November. The level of engagement and collective organisation is unprecedented and has resulted in a significant organisational gain."

The dispute was the first time in 30 years that the Prospect professional and managerial union called a national strike. With a total membership of around 103,000, the union clocked up 1,111 new members in November - the best ever month for recruitment in the union's history.

The country's largest union, general union Unite, with around 250,000 members across the public sector also saw its public sector membership increase - by more than 6,600 in the last six months of 2011.

The union's assistant general secretary, Gail Cartmail, said: "What is interesting in these Unite figures is that this membership growth has come about when job losses in the public sector are mounting."

Cartmail said the figures reflect that, "contrary to the myths being peddled by ministers, the trade union movement is properly representing working people in this country".

Labour Research is published monthly.


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