Rip up the TUC and start again, says union leader

That’s the stark call from Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. This week’s Tribune contains one of the more interesting and thought-provoking interventions from a union leader on the eve of next week’s TUC Congress in Manchester (okay, so Bob Crow is calling for a general strike, according to The Times, but it’s not going to happen).

Never mind resisting the coalition government’s cuts – Hunt says that if unions want to survive, and stop haemorrhaging members (union membership is less than half what it was in the 1970s), they need to rethink how they work – and start at the top, with the TUC’s ruling general council.

Calling the process of electing the TUC general secretary “more akin to the election of a pope than of the chief voice of British workers”, she proposes that both the general secretary and the roughly 60-strong general council of union bosses and senior officials should be directly elected. Meanwhile, the format of Congress should be turned on its head – less preaching to the converted, more strategy and target setting, she says.

It’s unusual for a union leader to admit to structural flaws in the union movement in such a public way. She writes:

“Over the course of the previous administration, the trade union movement lost more than a quarter of a million members. Public sector density fell as state employment soared and private sector density collapsed as statutory recognition was, at last, granted.

“The truth is that we failed. Blaming Labour, blaming the Tories, blaming the judges and blaming our members will not distract from the fact that union membership fell because we did not do enough to persuade British workers that we were worth joining.”

Hunt goes on to say that there should be only one union per sector to avoid competition for members (her own is an example of this, having merged in 2006-7), and says that the TUC “needs to up its game and speak more forcefully on occasions”. She adds:

“We spend too much time at our own union conferences and at TUC Congress agreeing with one another and not enough time developing a strategic approach to increasing membership and improving organisation.

“We should be using these four days in Manchester to set priorities and targets in conjunction with unions for increasing our membership. That may well mean turning our policy forum on its head and abandoning the motion-based format.”

A former senior union official this week told me that there was some appetite in the movement for such changes, but that major union bosses would on the whole resent Hunt’s intervention. We shall see.

More details in this week’s Tribune.

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