How UNISON survived the attack on the labour movement – and won

UNISON has been announced as the largest union in the country with over 1.3 million members. To get there it had to survive Tory austerity and right wing propaganda.

UNISON is officially the biggest union in the UK.

It makes me incredibly proud to say that, because I know what it means. It means that despite a decade of austerity, pay cuts, job losses and attacks on the public sector, UNISON has remained strong.

Through those long years when the UNISON’s decline was predicted, we thrived rather than just survived.

It hasn’t been easy – far from it. Thanks to government cuts hacking away at the public sector in general, and local government in particular, UNISON has to recruit more than 100,000 new members every single year to remain strong. And that exactly what has happened, despite facing arguably the toughest outlook of any UK union. UNISON has come through the storm, and achieved huge victories for its members along the way.

Defeating employment tribunal fees. Smashing the government’s 1% pay cap. Overturning some of the worst elements of the Trade Union Act. These were just some of the victories won by UNISON while facing down a government that seems set on destroying both unions and public services – an incredibly hostile climate for the UK’s public services union.

The more members UNISON has, the better protection we can provide for all public service workers. More support, more resources, greater visibility, better bargaining power and stronger advocacy – they’re all a direct result of having more voices speak as one, in UNISON.

That’s why I’m prouder still to say that UNISON is a growing union too, with hundreds of new members joining every single day.

Our recent ‘Grovember’ initiative sought to turn a month that is traditionally quiet for union recruitment into one of the most successful months in the union’s 25 year history. In 30 days, over 18,000 public service employees joined our ranks. It was a month where every part of UNISON played their part to everyone’s benefit. As a result, every sector, nation and region of UNISON is bigger and stronger now than it was a month ago.

Activities during November included everything from ‘walk round week’ where activists made sure they were particularly visible in workplaces, to open days, stalls and regularly updating notice boards. No change was too small or too insignificant. On the contrary, the aim was to accumulate ‘marginal gains’, which when combined can make a big difference. If every activist spoke to one more potential member a week, for example, the impact across such a large union could be hugely significant.

But we’re not just the biggest union, but a growing union – and one that’s committed to being bigger, better and bolder in future.

For those wondering how this happened, I’m afraid there is no simple answer or silver bullet. In truth there are multiple overlapping factors. There’s the incredible dedication and hard work of UNISON activists and staff, who all share a determination to bring more public services workers into the union at a time when services are at greatest need of protection. There’s our innovations (not always popular at the time, but proven to work) like TV and radio advertising, our quick and easy join online process and a commitment to focus group, poll, test and examine everything about our work – and our assumptions – to ensure that we’re always striving for better.

Most of all, there’s our ambition to be there for our members whenever they need us, whether in person, on the phone or online. Most UNISON members won’t become activists, but they do expect us to stand up for them every day, and to be on their side – and at their side – when they need help. And that bond of trust between UNISON and public service workers is so important, because the best recommendation any potential UNISON member can receive is from someone who is already a member.

This year, we celebrated 25 years of UNISON. In the past quarter of a century there have been plenty of voices predicting our downfall. But UNISON is very much here to stay.

I’m confident that the special people who make up UNISON’s membership are up to the task – and if we achieve that, there’s no reason why we can’t keep on growing, keep on getting stronger, and shaping our public services and our country for better in the decades to come.

Dave Prentis is the general secretary of UNISON

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by becoming a Left Foot Forward Supporter today.