Page 1


Gregor Gall is Research Professor of Industrial Relations and Director of the Work and Employment Research Unit (WERU) at the University of Hertfordshire. He is author of four research monographs on unions and editor of four volumes on union organising. He has carried out work for Aslef, Connect, FBU, PCS, RMT and the TUC, and writes a fortnightly column for the Morning Star on union matters. Acknowledgement My thanks go to members of the Institute’s Publications SubCommitte and to Alan Kerr for their comments in the process of redrafting and revising this pamphlet.

ISBN 978 1 906703 09 7 March 2010 published by the Institute of Employment Rights The People’s Centre, 50-54 Mount Pleasant,Liverpool, L3 5SD e-mail print and layout by Upstream (TU) 020 7207 1560 £6.50 for trade unions and students £20 others

cover pic: Jess Hurd/ Trade union organising campaign targets City workers.

‘union organising’ and the health of the union movement in Britain by Gregor Gall


chapter 1: introduction


chapter 2: agency and environment


organising versus servicing the continuing importance of institutional regulation

chapter 3: union organising: the processes The TUC Organising Academy variation amongst unions

‘Union organising’ and the health of the union movement in Britain

chapter 4: union organising: the outcomes


union strength union membership table 1: union membership in Britain table 2: union membership: TUC twenty biggest affiliates table 3: TUC-affiliated women union members union recognition pay and conditions

chapter 5: union organising: possibilities and problems alliances with civil society groups innovations in organising barriers and obstacles limitations and weaknesses managerialism and ‘managed activism’?

7 10

13 13 15

19 20 25 25 26 30 31 33

36 36 37 38 40 43

recommendations and proposals

sources used and suggested reading on the organising academy on union organising on outcomes of union organising on partnership on union recognition

47 47

50 50 50 52 53 53



IER publications


‘Union organising’ and the health of the union movement in Britain

chapter 6: conclusions and recommendations



‘Union organising’ as a distinct term became an accepted part of the lexicon of trade unionism1 in Britain by the late 2000s. Few unions would publicly state that they are not ‘organising’ unions and many would be able to show hard and incontrovertible evidence of practicing what they preach. This was not always so, and begs the startlingly obvious question: if unions were not about union organising in either specific or general terms, what were they about? It seems self-evident that unions should have been about, and only about, union organising, where this means collectively organising workers so that they can defend and advance their collective interests. This seems to be the very being and rationale of trade unionism. This much is unproblematic. But the methods by which this rationale was pursued have been far from unproblematic. As union membership and power became increasingly depleted, the old ways of union organising throughout most western economies, no longer seemed to suffice. It was in response to this abject decline that ‘union organising’ as a distinctive approach was developed abroad and then brought to British shores in the mid to late 1990s. The TUC played a major role in the propagation and dissemination of these ideas, launching the Organising Academy in 1998. Some ten years on from this attempt at step change in trade unionism in Britain, it is appropriate to assess the practice of ‘union organising’ in terms of its form, nature, extent and effectiveness. This pamphlet, drawing upon the research of the author and many other industrial relations academics2 as well as some publicly available materials on union membership, will undertake this task by first examining what is specifically meant by the idea of ‘union organising’, and where, when and how this concept and practice

‘Union organising’ and the health of the union movement in Britain



‘Union organising’ and the health of the union movement in Britain

emerged. From this, it will track the development of ‘union organising’ in terms of the factors which have propelled it forward as well as those that have held it back. Part of this assessment must also necessarily be a consideration of the strengths and weakness of ‘union organising’ as an idea in itself and whether the weaknesses of ‘union organising’ relate to it as an idea, merely its implementation or both. Alongside this, the contribution of ‘union organising’ to the current health (or otherwise) of the union movement in Britain is discussed. The perspective adopted throughout the pamphlet is that ‘union organising’ is a positive development. So whilst it is analysed in a sympathetic and constructive way, this cannot be done in an unconditional manner. Only if a thorough-going critique of ‘union organising’ is mounted can the union movement in Britain hope to draw the appropriate lessons and determine its response.


WHAT IS THE INSTITUTE? The Institute of Employment Rights was launched on 28th February 1989 and was granted charitable status in 1994. As a labour law “think tank”, supported by the trade union movement, our purpose is to provide research, ideas and detailed argument on all aspects of employment law. As a charity, however, we are not a campaigning organisation. The Institute has attracted wide and distinguished support creating a unique network of lawyers, academics and trade unionists. Among the membership are John Hendy QC, Professor Keith Ewing, Professor Aileen McColgan, Jim Mortimer, Tess Gill and the general secretaries of Britain’s largest trade unions. The results of our work are published in papers and booklets. We also provide short articles, free of legal jargon, for trade union journals and other publications. Dissemination of our ideas is increasingly achieved through seminars and conferences as well as our educational courses. The Institute does not assume that legal measures can offer ultimate solutions for political, economic and social problems. However, we recognise that law has a part to play in influencing the employment relationship, both individually and collectively. Our funding is from various sources, including subscriptions, which entitle subscribers to a copy of all our new publications and reductions in conference fees. If you are interested in subscribing or would like to know more about the Institute, then contact us at The People’s Centre, 50-54 Mount Pleasant, Liverpool, L3 5SD or email us at Or visit our website at


Preview: Union Organising and the Health of the Union Movement in Britain  

Buy the full book here This timely publication assesses the impact the “union organising” agenda has had on...