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 – – to find out more.

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

  1. 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.

  2. Paul Evans

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

  3. Unions 21

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

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

  5. Michael Harris

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

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