How do unions renew their public image?

Dan Whittle, the director of Unions 21, on the need for unions to renew and make themselves relevant to the 2011 public.

Dan Whittle is the director of Unions 21

In the aftermath of yesterday’s day of action, unions will be analysing how they and their arguments have been portrayed in the media, and the effect on public opinion – as no doubt will Left Foot Forward. Though tactical considerations come first, the think tank Unions 21 is calling on the left to take part in a far wider strategic debate on how unions renew their public image for the long term.

In a publication to be launched on Monday, contributors argue that we have a tremendous opportunity to re-present unions as relevant and effective.

Unions have not had such a high media profile for years.

More than half the population backed the aims of the March 26th March for the Alternative according to YouGov – but a third of people still see unions as old fashioned.

So what can unions do? These are three of the ‘tough love’ ideas our contributors have put forward:

1. Ensure that middle aged white men in suits and ties are kept firmly in the place that reflects their minority in unions

If trade unions are represented in the media by people who “are not like me” there is less chance of the union message getting through. The members unions put in front of the media should be broadly representative of the cross section of ages, of gender, of race that the movement represents.

2. Perform a social media audit

Facebook, Twitter and blogs are ever more important sources of information – and as trust in government, public institutions and almost everything else declines, people increasingly rely on their friends or even celebrities for their news and opinions.

Left Foot Forward contributor Mike Harris recommends unions should perform a social media audit to identify their most highly networked members and involve them in delivering their communications. High profile supporters can be used to attract new interest online and well crafted online ‘asks’ can be used to build support and membership.

3. Drop the jargon

Writer and trainer Paul Richards argues that trade unionism, like every other walk of life, has developed its own slang, jargon and insiders-only language, every bit as impenetrable as polari, doctors’ slang, cockney rhyming slang, computer hackers’ slang… He reminds us that talking about collective bargaining, constructive dismissal and transfers of undertakings is language impenetrable to most people and off-putting and alienating to many.

There are many more ideas for renewing the union offer in the publication, copies of which will be available at the launch event in Parliament on Monday (July 4th), in the Grimmond Room, Portcullis House, from 6–8pm and afterwards online; email me – [email protected] – to find out more.

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19 Responses to “How do unions renew their public image?”

  1. june hilton

    How do unions renew their public image? asks @Unions21's @DanWhittle #J30

  2. Unions 21

    “@leftfootfwd: How do unions renew their public image? asks @Unions21's @DanWhittle #J30”

  3. bob woods

    How do unions renew their public image? asks @Unions21's @DanWhittle #J30

  4. Unions 21 – 3 ways to improve the image of unions @Unions21 @cllr_mikeharris @Labourpaul #J30 @leftfootfwd

  5. Selohesra

    Timing of strrike was a bit of a fail – most of the news last night seemed to be on royal newlyweds in Canada. I guess teachers did not have much choice as they were not keen on waiting until August to do their striking for some reason

  6. Donnacha DeLong

    The number 1 thing unions can do to improve their public image is recruit and organise. It’s no coincidence that the unions that went out yesterday have a clear focus and recruit actively – all four unions (PCS, NUT, ATL and UCU) have strong density and are strongly member-led. The unions that didn’t, but could have – Unite and Unison – are too unfocussed and hierarchical. They’re also dreadful at recruitment, even in areas that are already theirs.

    The NUJ, my own union, has proved time and time again how it’s possible to recruit and organise in the private sector. But the big unions who have effectively taken over most of the private sector do nothing near enough to recruit and organise as is desperately needed.

  7. Paul Evans

    Just seen something else on unions communications stragegies from @unions21 – complements this

  8. Unions 21

    “@Paul0Evans1: Just seen something else on unions communications from @unions21 – complements this”

  9. Michael Harris – 3 ways to improve the image of unions @Unions21 @cllr_mikeharris @Labourpaul #J30 @leftfootfwd

  10. Michael Harris

    I've contributed to a new @unions21 pamphlet on the image of trade unions – @leftfootfwd

  11. Unions 21

    I've contributed to a new @unions21 pamphlet on the image of trade unions – @leftfootfwd

  12. Dan Whittle

    I've contributed to a new @unions21 pamphlet on the image of trade unions – @leftfootfwd

  13. John Slinger

    Dan Whittle and Mike Harris are contributing authors to a new pamphlet called Pragmatic Radicalism: Ideas from Labour’s New Generation. Please see and Twitter @PragRad. Dan discusses Labour’s relationship with the unions and Mike writes about whether there will be a re-birth of ‘Liberal Labour’. The pamphlet brings together writers from across the spectrum of Labour opinion, including LFF founder Will Straw. The pamphlet is launched in the House of Commons on 12 July – more details available on the website. Please take a look and let the authors know your views. Thanks.

  14. lauren

    Hello, I’m not sure what to think of Union Image as I emailed ”Unison” 2 weeks ago asking advise on how to join but 2 weeks on and I am still waiting a reply – hardly organised if they can’t be bothered to reply to me with view to signing me up.

  15. union-information

    Unions should consider producing a pocket dictionary jargon buster ”Union – Information” maybe called ”Uni-form”

    jargon allientates – ”GMB” ”PCT” ” ”ATL” ”USDAW” etc etc…..when my kids ask what the terms stand for I want to be able to tell them.

  16. Paul Odtaa

    First shut anyone shouting with glee things like ‘It’ll be like the miners strike except we’ll win’. That keeps millions away from joining as they don’t see themselves as part of a class war and are frightened of going on strike.

    Cameron wants a major strike as this diverts press attention on what he is doing and he’ll scapegoat the unions for the failing economy etc.

    Second fight the fight for everyone. Attacking the abysmal private pension provision in this country, compared to say Germany and Holland and pointing out that this exploitation in being done by Cameron’s profiteering chums in the city.

    Third set up a trade union lite service for temp workers, self employed contractors and those frightened to join an union – to provide legal support and advice on job matters, rights etc. If done discreetly this would be a way of getting people into the fold.

    Fourth take a leaf out of German trade unions. Attempt, and publicise attempts, to work with employers sorting out problems.

  17. Ed's Talking Balls


    I think your first point is very perceptive. On both sides, there seems to be an inexplicable appetite to refight past battles: the unions are still smarting from the hiding they took from Thatcher while arch-Tories fancy dishing out another kicking. It’ll do no-one any good; I would hope that any sane, rational and decent person would strive to negotiate, in good faith, and avoid conflict if at all possible.

  18. Leon Wolfson

    Ed, the Unions seem far more willing to negotiate to me. They’re certainly not the side putting out PR statements saying they’ve decided certain things, which won’t change, or pre-empting policy papers which they have commissioned!

  19. Dan Whittle

    These comments were really interesting and useful – thanks. Dan

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