I was struck last week, when talking to Unite workplace representatives about their fight to defend decent final salary pension schemes, by their principled stance and commitment.
Yet it’s obvious from the discussion that leading workplace campaigns can be an uphill struggle. One rep complained of members “apathy”. Despite his best efforts too few members seemed willing to get involved.
So I looked up the definition of “apathy”. It’s defined as “lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern; indifference: extreme poverty has reduced them to a state of apathy". While very few of our members (if any) will be in extreme poverty, many will over their lifetimes have faced serious financial and social stress.
We know that the gap between the rich and the poor in the UK is one of the highest worldwide among developed nations. It’s also true that our taxation system still favours the rich with the poorest paying a greater proportion of their income on tax and often all their wages on the essentials, such as housing, food and energy.
Margaret Thatcher claimed there was no such thing as society. Her policy push was towards individualism and against the “big state”, unless it was to wade in against organised unions when the state and anti-union laws were all too evident. Individual citizens took on major liabilities and thousands were misled, opting out of company pensions into personal schemes at great loss or buying homes without the money to cope with variable interest rates.
This individualism, coupled with the decline of the UK’s most traditional industries means a generation have grown up with rampant consumerist values as the norm. Dog eat dog.
Yet the “union advantage” proves the lie of individualism. People in unionised workplaces earn more and have better working conditions than their non-union counterparts. So getting together, collectively pushing for change works. That’s why finding new ways to engage with members is so important and is especially true of young members. It is impressive that hundreds of thousands of people are campaigning via Twitter to back up the call for a Robin Hood Tax and on Facebook to save the BBC’s digital radio programme 6 Music.
Unite must be a listening union, thrashing out with our reps and members new ways to involve more people to make the most of our "union advantage".