What is a trades council? When I first got involved in leftist politics comrades would occasionally mention brother or sister so-and-so had been to this mysteriously named body and had either passed a resolution or got some cash from its coffers. What puzzled me was why a business-sounding organisation would be willing to give money to obvious ne'er-do-wells. It wasn't until after I'd become a T&G shop steward that I found out what one was. Trades councils are basically your local version of the TUC to which affiliated trade union branches send delegates. They are bodies comprised of lay activists and their aim is to organise and coordinate cooperation among different trade unions - which is not always easy as some affiliates compete among themselves for recruits and recognition deals.
Brother S and I regularly attend the North Staffs Trades Council on behalf of Keele UCU. Typically the meeting is half about local struggles and campaigns, and half business (which is a big improvement on how they used to be). This week our monthly meet gave the floor to Tom Mellish, who occupies a policy role with the TUC proper as well as being chair of his local council in Lewisham. He spoke on trades councils and the labour movement.
He began with the good news. After the long years of decline, trade union membership has stabilised around the seven million mark. Since 1995 there have been 3,600 new union recognition agreements reach has given unions access to another 1.3 million workers. The macho image often associated with trade unionism lags behind reality as 51.2 per cent of trade union members are now women. But this all needs tempering with the recognition of some negative developments. Current membership growth is low as are new recognitions, and overall union density is low. Only 28 per cent of the work force are in a union, and just 36 per cent benefit from collective bargaining arrangements. The picture is even grimmer in private sector workplaces. Only 16.4 per cent of which are unionised and only eight per cent of firms have a density of 50 per cent plus - not a great base from which to influence industrial policy.
Despite this and the massive drop in numbers from the seventies, the trade union movement in Britain remains strong and are easily the largest campaigning organisations in terms of activists. But even unions and their membership need some convincing. In the 90s unions tried to reinvent themselves as employment insurance service providers. The so-called 'new unionism' saw unions offer holidays, insurance and credit cards. By and large these were not successful nor did they stymie declining memberships. Instead unions should stick to what they do - which is representing the interests of workers. To do this unions need clout: a larger activist base and membership. The legacy of the service model must also be shed: unions are about enabling workers to take action for themselves; not providing a layer of full timers who can be called in to do the representing for them.
Trades councils can help build unions through their independent campaigning activity. But some layers inside unions themselves find local TUCs "difficult". Whereas union full timers have definite objectives and are responsible to the rest of officialdom for their actions, trades councils are not. They are sometimes perceived as left-wing and oppositional. Furthermore trades councils recruitment of workers can be "problematic" because they lie outside existing membership growth strategies. Citing the example of one unemployed workers' centre, a case worker used to regularly recruit non-unionised workers to the relevant union. However the unions were far from appreciative - for them it meant their new recruit profile was fragmented. Extra resources would have to be expended organising these workers, who were often very isolated. Small wonder some elements of officialdom are sceptical.
Moving onto the discussion I asked how many trades councils there are across Britain, given its story has been one of folding councils and declining attendances. Much to my surprise Tom replied there are 134 registered for 2009, which is up from a low of 102 in 2002. It seems campaigning is the key to growing the numbers. Brothers S and J talked a bit about our recent visibility in a number of actions and strikes across the city - two public meetings on the post office, a presence on local posties' and lecturers' picket lines, involvement with anti-fascist and anti-academy campaigning. Our TUC is slowly but surely rebuilding is profile in the local labour movement - through Bro S thought we need a distinctive campaign that can make our name more widely known. Sister J suggested there are other things we can do beyond acting as recruitment sergeants for trade unions. We must remember that, generally speaking, our council is politically unrepresentative of affiliated members, which can compound any "isolation" TUCs have from the rest of the movement. Instead we need to get stuck into these wider issues, which can demonstrate to non-unionised workers the continued relevance of trade unionism. Trades councils can "bridge" trade unionism and issues beyond the workplace.
All in all this was quite a useful meeting. As we head into a situation where the government are taking a chainsaw to public services, the strength of trade unions are crucial to building a viable opposition. Trades councils can and will play a vital role liaising between unions at the local level and mobilising solidarity. If you're a lay trade unionist who wants to see a stronger and more unified labour movement, you can do worse than seeking your branch's delegation to your local trades council. If there isn't one in your locality but fancy setting one up, get in touch with your regional TUC here. And if you're not in a union already, why not?
Image courtesy of Brighton and Hove District Trades Council.