Young Core Workers Set To Save UK Unions?

We are on the brink of the biggest shake up of the UK trade union scene in a generation. New work  lead by the TUC in collaboration  with the Good Innovation agency seems set to break through the  deeply entrenched disconnect between younger workers  and organisations  that  despite not enjoying  the  influence of years past,  still have over 6 million  paying members.

But the outlook is stark.  Overall trade union density is down to a quarter of the workforce. The numbers of employees whose terms and conditions are union-negotiated has fallen in parallel to around 30% across the economy as a whole. And in areas where employment is expected to rise – and which have a high number if young workers – density levels can be as low as 5%

The TUC term these people as “young core workers” – they are characterised by being aged 21–30, predominantly working, full- or part- time in the private sector,  they’re not in full-time education and earn  low to average wages. They are disproportionately represented in the hospitality, social care and customer services sectors.

The challenge, to a certain extent, is as it has always been:  Get the membership/engagement offer right for this group and you then have a proven tool that will be transformational.  What’s different this time is the power and energy behind the initiative.

Some very significant research has already taken place, involving a survey population from these target areas.  As a result   it  has been possible to identify  two key  dimensions  that  characterise  the employment experience of  these YCWs – how important do they regard  their job,  and are they more  preoccupied  by  the present or the future?

This leads to four generic worker types described in the table below:


These four types sit under some challenges that seem to be on the radar of all YCWs,  namely Realisation  (they don’t  perceive that  bad,  even illegal treatment at work  is  problematic, Trust (sharing  information or concerns  is  seen as a weakness to be seized upon  by  fellow workers) and Futility (the belief  that any attempt to  effect change will end in failure).

Conceptually, the next stage is to identify a successful series of engagement strategies.  We know already that this is possible – look at Unite’s Sports Direct campaign, or the GMB work in respect of Uber.  But the YCW strategy is an upscaling of these victories on a wider, larger, deeper scale. Something those driving the report – including a specially convened “President’s Group” of senior representatives from TUC affiliates – must recognise cannot be accomplished within the existing spheres of influence of individual trade unions.

The breadth of and foundation for of the YCW project is ground-breaking: This is more, much more than a “we can’t change anything but we’re going to try anyway” throw of the dice. The early response from young trade unionists is determined. But there is a necessity for habitually territorial unions to break out of the Balkanised industrial landscape created in the post war years.  What was once comfortable has been increasingly unfit for purpose for many years.

Of course, this won’t solve all our problems in one hit, but the exciting, tantalising, real prospect of this project is the formation of new collaborative, cross union structures to deliver success in what everyone in the movement knows is an existential challenge.

Shock! Gig Economy Is Not The Only Show In Town


The future workforce of Britain – where the jobs of the future are  going to be and what they are like – has been spotlighted by new research. And the findings will surprise you.

The Changing World of Work, by NIESR’s Jonny Runge (edited by Becky Wright), will be premiered at the Unions21 conference tomorrow.  In a landscape over-populated by talk of robotics, artificial intelligence and the use of technology, one universal truth is that certain industries will rise, and others will begin or continue their descent in the labour market.

This gives three inescapable questions:

  • Where will workers of the near future be?
  • How will they be represented at work?
  • What changes will we need to make in light of the future of work?

For trade unions, the questions are all the more pressing – existential really, given the low levels of union membership amongst the young and also amongst certain sectors pf the economy – retail, hospitality, and social care – especially when the predominant form of employment is precarious.

There are challenges to an “establishment” view that unions are technophobes and laggards when it comes to connecting with the so-called “Young Core Workers”. There is excellent work being done by the TUC and the Good Innovations outfit.  But a key point of the new research is that crucial as it is, we should not put all our eggs in the one Gig economy basket.

This is interesting and innovative territory, and it seems to me to be well-founded.  Runge and Wright have identified and tried to extrapolate  five key  influences on the labour market – demography (growing and ageing population will lead to increase demand/consumption in particular sectors), technology (automation of certain human-only occupations will take place,  but  the extent is arguable), productivity (and what is the post-crash stagnation  become entrenched in the short  to medium term), globalisation (certainly a factor,  but its impact now obscured by resurgent nationalism and protectionism), and changing contractual arrangements of certain services (from, yes,  worker-status contracts (as opposed to employee status), demands  for  a better work-life balance, and  the rise of the “collaborative economy”).

Clearly there is a degree of uncertainty about some of these influences, but using data from the estimable UKCES, Runge and Wright have identified three industries with expected high employment growth – the retail trade (surprised?) hospitality and management services.

Collectively, these three sectors will see employment growth by an estimated 900,000 jobs in the period to 2024, accounting for half of all the new jobs in the UK economy is this period.  There is a noticeable decline in self-employment, a growth in those in workers in these sectors with at least a first degree, and  no dramatic change in the balance between part-time and full-time working, or between percentages of men and women employed.

Three “ones to watch” are also suggested – Construction, Social Work and Information Technology, who between them are projected to add over 600,000 jobs between now and 2024.

The report concludes with a brief over view of UKCES employment projections for over 70 industries, with a preliminary view on the likely impact of Brexit.

From the perspective or worker representation and employee voice, this analysis – with its detailed demographic, hours-worked and occupational breakdown – is very helpful indeed.  The snapshots of the level of  union membership and collective bargaining  give grounds for cautions optimism  that there is a platform for trade union growth in each sector.

Runge and Wright give us the answer to the first of our three questions, and paint a vivid picture of the dynamics and challenges of union organising in these sectors.

Whether it is the overall constructive engagement with workforces that is part of the Taylor review, or practical questions of the extent to which unions focus on particular sectors, geographies and roles, the Changing World of Work is an important contribution.

The Changing World of Work can be downloaded here.

Full disclosure:  I am a board member of Unions21, on whose website this piece also appears

Signing Off, Signing In…..

“Bloody hell – you’ve been doing your job longer than I’ve been on the planet.”  That was the response from one of our young activists when I answered his question on my service record.

That made me think.  And then a schooldays friend of mine died. It happens, of course. And as you get older, chances are it happens more frequently.  But it made me reflect that I wanted to spend more time with those closest to me whilst I can.

So, after 27 years at the CWU, and 30 as a national trade union officer,  I will be moving on to other things in the new year.

The union is in a phase of great change – so I’ve taken an opportunity, seized the moment, made the leap (or possibly jumped out of an aeroplane with no parachute) to do something different, to write a new chapter, sing a new song (perhaps even learning to sing before trying this), and do my best to die (though not for many many years) with as few regrets as possible.

Am I quitting the struggle, giving up the fight, selling the jersey?  Not a chance:  Not whilst those “five giant evils” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness are still enemies to be defeated.

It is a privilege to represent our members. To be trusted by them to negotiate on their behalf individually or collectively.  To be part of a great progressive movement for change.  I am still part of that movement. You can physically take me out of the union, but you can’t take the union out of my soul!

So to all my friends, colleagues, comrades and acquaintances, thanks for the company, counsel, your support, understanding, inspiration and friendship over the years. This chapter is now closing, but this is not me signing off – rather signing in for a whole load of new adventures.

Opportunity visits the prepared mind” someone once said to me – and I’m ready for any eventuality.

Why Trade Unions Need the Young Pregnants (and how they can get them)


Speaking at a Unions 21 meeting on how to best use digital information, TUC communications  chief Antonia Bance  linked shocking headlines lines on discrimination related to pregnancy at work to the young workers we need to  recruit to survive as a movement,  and who just happen to be pregnant in significant numbers

Young workers are a notoriously and persistently a hard demographic for us to recruit as a recent TUC report emphasised only too clearly.  So, argued Antonia, if we could tailor our recruitment message to be particularly appealing to young pregnant female workers – just the group who know from other research are facing bullying, harassment and discrimination at their workplace – we would be pushing at more or less an open door

Tailoring recruitment in this way is just one avenue that is being pursued under the TUC initiative. But let us suppose we have done the tailoring and are reaching out.  What message are we giving?  What service are we offering?  What is the follow up when someone clicks the button or image on their smart phone to say “yes” I am interested; “yes” I need help.

Because offering help is not the same as providing it. When someone clicks on that button, we  need to be able  to respond in a meaningful way. (Don’t, for example,  print foreign language recruitment  fliers when  there is no one at the end of the recruitment hotline who can speak that language)

Let’s take now the situation of a pregnant worker in a franchised shop, restaurant or other business unit. She sees the advertisement on her smart phone and clicks to respond.

First problem: where does that response go?  Our trade union movement is too fragmented and, in my own view, too reluctant to truly collaborate, to offer a clear-cut route to advice and support.

But let’s say we have reached a level of understanding that means a number of unions have collaborated effectively. We have a common entry portal.  We offer a nuanced service so that basic advice and information is free, but when it comes to something more meaningful or more detailed, there is a requirement to enter into a more formal commitment.

Such an arrangement can and has worked in other environments. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions initiative was predicated on just such collaboration.  The nuanced membership regime that our own National Union of Students operates with its NUS Extra Programme shows how you can differentiate between levels of service and levels of membership.

So having seen how we can deal with the “reception” side of the equation, what happens when we turn our attention to the transmission – a pregnant worker who has made the call?

Of course it is wonderful if she is now receiving a tailored, co-ordinated, coherent service. But she is now exposed, still worried, her employment perhaps increasingly precarious as a very real fear of being victimised takes hold.

Here we need to acknowledge some of the methodology used by the Public Concern at Work charity that recognised explicitly the risk/likelihood of victimisation.  However, whistleblowers in many circumstances are protected under law whereas raising concerns about discrimination at work is not yet a protected characteristic.

There is an obvious and immediate step forward that can be achieved were legislation introduced to expand the remit of the Whistleblowers Act to include complaints about denial of a statutory right (such as payment of the National Minimum Wage) or unlawful discrimination.

That could be reinforced by giving Employment Tribunals the power to compel reinstatement, or award more significant compensation (although awards for discrimination are currently uncapped, precedent constrains the amounts actually cited).

There could even be a dismantling of the procedural and cost barriers that act as a disincentive for employees to pursue Employment Tribunal claims – if there was the political will.

Quite apart from the absence of a progressive political climate  which  might  make such  reforms to employment protection legislation  possible,  is it not also the case that prevention  is so much better than cure?

Whatever sanction is imposed on the perpetrator; the pregnant worker who has been bullied and harassed has already suffered. Much better   to create an environment in which the likelihood of harm is greatly reduced.

“Hear, hear” readers exclaim – but how is this to be done?

This is where the political climate is surely benign. Most if not all reputable employers would agree that discrimination is wrong and that includes acts against pregnant workers.  It is not just an ethical or legal question, but a financial and operational  one too.

So a declaration of best practice for pregnant workers should attract widespread support.   And the combination of a desire to do right with fear of being caught out doing wrong is a huge fillip  to compliance.

And to emphasise the importance of this as an issue, employers   can achieve  a “kite mark”  as a recognition of their good practice.  And why would any woman, especially of child bearing age,  want to work for an outfit  that  is not accredited under this scheme.

So we design-in good practice. And we spread from large employers   through trade confederations and  other routes to  smaller ones and eventually to all employers. So that even the pregnant worker in the franchised, small workplace, has confidence that her employer, her manager and her colleagues understand, intuitively, what is required.

It is a real indictment that so much of this remains to be achieved. It is wasteful economically and destructive in human terms.  It is also unnecessary and avoidable. And it can change if we want it to.


The moral case for saving steel


Despite being clearly cited by Carwyn Jones (and others) I do not think the moral case for significant state intervention in UK steel industry has been fully fleshed out.

‘Cause morals matter, right? They matter because without a sense of fundamental fairness and a doing-of-the-right-thing, the basis of society becomes seriously eroded – as does the authority of those in government.

The moral dimension here is not just about the industry itself – not about a depersonalised economic asset or transaction. Steel has a deep, long history which I believe accounts for the resonance of this issue.

It is the people most directly connected with the industry who create this resonance – steel is woven into the lives, economy, and folklore of many communities. And nationally it is almost a touchstone – a standard or criterion by which Britain is judged or recognized.

And if the steel industry dies, what happens (and what has happened) to the people who are those communities?

The prospects for steel towns are worse than stark. 50 % of all employment in Scunthorpe is at risk as this excellent video explains. Port Talbot and the surrounding area fear an economic catastrophe if the plant closes. Even the Daily Telegraph raised fears about already-high local poverty. Redcar’s decline, brief regeneration and closure as been described as “disastrous” for Tees-side

We can probably agree with 20/20 hindsight that it was unfortunate that certain towns become so dependent on one employer. But that doesn’t help find a solution.

And a solution is needed, because the alternative is to push already poor, struggling, barely-keeping-heads-above-water people under a blanket of hopelessness.

You may ask, how can we make special case for steel, when we didn’t for coal? Or manufacturing? Well, it is the steel industry is what we are dealing with right now. Maybe steel makes us realise that perhaps we should have done something different for other industries. Maybe we should point to the state aid given to RBS. Maybe we just take each case on its merits.

As groups like We Own It make clear, state involvement is not an irrevocably bad news story, nor a visa to the land of incompetence and complacency. State intervention, nationalisation even, is no blank cheque, no open-ended subsidy for loss making.

Instead, as steel unions and the TUC have collectively said – it is a chance, a hope.

So far, so ethical (unless, as some seem to, you believe that it is immoral to intervene in such circumstances, that the market must be allowed to prevail, that the state should not act as subsidiser of last resort, that the case against steel is overwhelming). But there is an economic justification too. Put simply, saving steel has significant financial plus-points.

That argument rolls across the issue of huge pension liabilities. But we should engage with this challenge, not run away from it. As financial online journal Citywire makes clear, there are options here for those who chose to seek them.

It also makes no sense to destroy the integrity of historic pension arrangements and depress the spending power of those in retirement – possibly even creating poverty for pensioners as well as for people of working age. All contributions to the economy are important.

There are many genuine practical questions and concerns. But we seem plagued by shades of grey in a fairly black-and-white scenario. The government should take the morally right decision, calling on strong supporting arguments of economics and strategic national interest.

Intervention – renationalisation – if you like – will save so much more than the UK steel industry, important as that is in its own right. It will reconnect an increasingly distant government with the peole it has an obligation to protect and serve.

Why #likealadydoc has undone Tory social policy

Dominic Lawson really has only got himself to blame. Even The Sunday Times’ infernal paywall couldn’t protect him from the consequences of his  “The One Sex change on the NHS that No-one Has Been Talking About” piece.

In a worryingly perfect validation of the Everyday Sexism project, Lawson appeared to blame the NHS’s medical staff shortfall on women not working longer hours.  Armed with the #likealadydoc hashtag, his remarks were ridiculed, parodied, put in context and utterly demeaned on social media.

He’s wrong by the way – the attack on  women in the NHS  has  been  ongoing for some time – in the  Telegraph in 2013, the Mail in 2014 and on Conservative Home last year .

But has Dominic Lawson actually done us all a service? For he has highlighted an irresolvable contradiction in Tory policy.

Under the Conservatives, the family has been championed as a crucial keystone in keeping society safe, well, happy and productive. As provider and protector, it is moving  quickly  from backstop  to  first port of  call, given  changes  and cuts in  state provision. So it is understandable as well as necessary  that there is an impact on  the workforce and the workplace.  People cannot, to return to Allison Pearson’s 14 year old argument,  have it all.

Or to be more straightforward – people cannot be in two places at the same time.

So this is not just about the junior doctors’ dispute.  Nor is it about the alleged preoccupation of the last Labour Government with target setting.  And it is not even about catching the Conservatives trying to play both ends against the middle.  It also exposes the wasteful and avoidable imbalance in caring in the UK, and why the debate on this needs to be taken to a higher level than ever before. Groups like WorkCareShare are making significant and welcome running here.

Why is the institutionalised default in terms of caring to expect, demand even, that women fulfil this role? It makes no sense – not only in terms of junior doctors’ work-life balance, but also in terms of quit rates of women in key or well-paid jobs, in which both they and the state have invested heavily.

The government will point to changes in legislation that have enhanced provision – but there are yawning, chasm-sized gaps between take up and demand. Access and affordability issues are not bringing addressed  The TUC report that UK Statutory Paternity  Pay is 25% of full time male median  wage and 50% of fathers do not take their 2 week entitlement –  rising to 75% for those on lower income.

And it isn’t only women who bear the brunt of that. Universal and highly flexible childcare   is great in theory – but perhaps not always so good for the kids, or the family unit.  And the absence of propper provision can deny choices as much to dads as well as mums.

I’m not saying that inadequate  arrangements for   childcare or caring in general  is  to blame  for  the junior doctors’  dispute  or is at the root  of Dominic Lawson’s  pitiful analysis.  But it is part of a toxic mix – part of a mismatch between economic and social policy announcements and objectives. The message to the government, surely and clearly,  is  that  to have progressive  public  policies –  such as  better resourcing  in the NHS at weekends – you need  progressive economic and social policies too.

#likealadydoc has undone more than just Dominic Lawson.

Employment rights and human rights are two sides of the same coin

With the news of Shami Chakrabarti standing down as  director of Liberty,  the organisation and the cause it fights for  are much in the news.  The following post sets out the link  between employment rights and human rights.  It seems appropriate to give it a fresh airing now.

My starting point is that to separate out employment rights and human rights is to make a spurious distinction. Is there anyone who would disagree with that proposition? We do not take our human rights off like a coat and hang them on a peg when we walk through the door of the workplace.

So it is something of a mystery to me why there is only modest engagement with organisations like Liberty given that they are by far and away the most effective champion and protector of things like the Human Rights Act which is the umbrella over so many of the freedoms we believe are essential.

This week saw the annual Human Rights Awards ceremony, sponsored by Liberty and the Southbank Centre in London. And I was delighted to see presenting one of the awards Paul Kenny from the GMB (and of course the immediate past president of Congress plus vice-chair of TULO.)

But it was not the sprinkling of trade union representatives in the audience and on the platform that reinforced the two-sides-of-the-same-coin argument on Human Rights. No, I thought it was more those who were shortlisted and those who received the awards.

Take Baroness Jane Campbell of Surbiton for example. She received a lifetime achievement award and no one can say she didn’t deserve it.

She has spent her life so far campaigning to change attitudes towards disabled people and focusing on support rather than charity. She has been an EHRC Commissioner and is an active member of the House of Lords. In a fantastic acceptance speech she made the telling point that campaigning on an equality agenda is too limiting. Instead, she argued, the campaign should be based on a human rights agenda – that all people, whatever their attributes, have a right to certain standards of behaviour and standing in society. She ended her contribution with the rallying call of “all for one, one for all!”. We all would recognise that!

The Human Rights Campaigner of the Year award was shared between the Open Rights Group and Both organisations are online campaigners, illustrating the power of social media and new technology to create and sustain social movements which have changed the political landscape. Runner-up in this category was the Blacklist Support Group  who have supported blacklisted construction workers. The relevance of these campaigning skills to our movement is inescapable, in my view.

The Human Rights “Close to Home” award went to Aaron Sonson, Satwant Singh Kenth and Gregory Poczkowski for the marvellous idea of developing a mobile app entitled “Stop and Search”. This gives information on the rights of people who are stopped and searched and allows people to report their experiences. Absolutely brilliant stuff in empowering young people about their rights.

And the Human Rights “Long March” award went to Hillsborough campaigners  who turned over 23 years of obstruction and deceit to achieve the possibility for justice for the victims of the tragedy-and in so doing open up the possibility of justice for others cheated of their rights by deliberate conspiracy and collusion between agencies of the state, such as at Orgreave.

If you think this was a shoo-in, then think again: Runners-up in this category were the Mau Mau Litigants , determined to see justice for the estimated 90,000 Kenyans killed or injured, and a further 160,000 detained by British officials during an uprising in the 1950s.

As a member of Liberty’s National Policy Council I attended the event and felt privileged humbled and inspired by these brave, courageous, tenacious not-to-be-put-off men and women. None of them sought fame, celebrity or notoriety. All of them had ample excuse to say “I’ve done enough.” Yet without them our world would be a poorer place, a more dangerous place. It would make it much harder for us to do our jobs as trade unionists, it would be much harder to be a trade unionist.

Because these people have done “the right thing” in terms of our values, that alone makes them deserving of support. But in practical terms, supporting these standard-bearers and supporting the human rights movement, means we are doing nothing more than supporting ourselves.

I think those are two very powerful reasons for joining Liberty. I hope you agree.

This piece was originally posted on the Unions 21 website “Union Home” in November 2012

Dads and Childcare – A trade union issue

Cost and Access issues make a childcare crisis for Dads which hurts us all

The All Party Parliamentary  Group on Fatherhood ( ) relaunches today with strong support  from Working With Men ( So  it is a good time to  reconsider the role of dads in childcare.

This is undoubtedly a trade union issue: Many  unions’ rulebooks contain an explicit commitment to challenging and eradicating discrimination. Union involvement can and does achieve better-than-statutory  provision.  And also because of the impact on women of uneven access to and take up of childcare by men. And finally because the statutory  framework  for childcare doesn’t address  problems of  affordability and eligibility.

However, we always need to remember that parenthood does not solely consist of a two parent heterosexual situation, and acknowledge that men need to be careful not to be seen as “muscling in”  on  an area of predominantly  female influence in a world where male chauvinism is still widely prevalent.

But hang on, you might say: Is there really much more to negotiate?

Because there has been significant improvement in statutory provision: 52  weeks Maternity leave, 2 weeks  paid Paternity Leave, 39 weeks Statutory Maternity Pay, 52 weeks Parental Leave, Shared Parental Leave and Pay since 2015, and expanded Unpaid Parental Leave. (  This is in addition to the Gender Equality Duty to make all parents the best parents they can be ( )

We see that 53% of working fathers drop their kids off at school and amongst younger parents,  more  men  do this than women (68%  young (18-35) fathers to 61% young mothers ).  There has been a 10 fold increase in fathers regularly looking after their children in last 10 years. (

Moreover, 52.2% employers offer in excess of the statutory requirement and there is a clear Union premium as 66% of negotiated Paternity Leave agreements were in excess of statutory levels in 2009.  That rose to 76% in 2014

Clearly trade union input has had a beneficial result. And men feature prominently in childcare campaigns, such as the CWU’s recent, efforts to keep open a workplace nursery ( ).  But before we get carried away, there is still plenty to do.

For example :

Shared Parental Leave & Pay since 2015 has had low take up: 40% of working fathers with a child under 1 are ineligible. And the TUC want 6, not 2 weeks, paid Paternity Leave. Fathers’ requests  for flexible working are more likely than mothers’ to be turned down. UK Statutory Paternity  Pay is 25% of full time male median  wage and 50% of fathers do not take their 2 weeks –  rising to 75% for those on lower income. ( )

The Gender Equality Duty has a very low take up and 36% of fathers fake sickness to meet family commitments.  44% lied to employer to meet family commitments and despite that 10 fold increase in fathers regularly looking after their children in last 10 years, still only 10% full-time carers are men and 85% of couples have the father as higher wage earner. ( )

Although 52.2% employers offer in excess of the statutory requirements, this is skewed to public sector and larger employers. Less than 20% of employers received a request for Additional Paternity Leave and those who use it are more in the public than private sector (although the private  sector is more likely to have an enhanced provision – Paternity pay and leave: XpertHR survey 2014 (


So current provision falls a long way short of good benchmarks – like, for example,  Denmark: there parents have the right to a total of 52 weeks leave with maternity subsistence allowance. The mother is entitled to four weeks’ maternity leave prior to giving birth and 14 weeks after; the father is entitled to two weeks’ leave after the birth; and remaining time can be divided according to individual wishes. Public sector employees receive full salary during maternity leave and private sector employees are entitled to a minimum level of maternity benefit, which is subject to negotiation with the employer. Parents who are not entitled to paid maternity leave from their workplace can receive maternity maintenance from their municipal office in their place of residence. ( )

This isn’t about who changes the dirty nappies. No-one likes doing that.  It is a question of what we are going to about this fundamentally unfair and dysfunctional situation. The TUC, RCM and CWU collaborated in organising  a successful fringe event  at Congress this year ( ). We work closely  with  academics and  other campaigners.  NUT do some excellent work on gender stereotyping ( ).  These things already feature on our bargaining agenda – but we must make the links across unions and  sectors. The new WorkCareShare initiative ( )  is a significant step towards this.

The ability of fathers to engage in childcare is inseparable from the ability of mothers to exercise proper choices – and neither should determined ‎by luck or chance. But it is also a contribution and catalyst to further changes in society on greater gender equality across the caring spectrum,  and the mainstreaming of good, shared, childcare arrangements as a critical factor for industrial and economic success.

Staying Alive – Unions, Youth and Activism

So just why the hell did more than 60 of us – mostly under 30 years old –  come to Birmingham (nice as it is) on a wet weekend at the end of October?  What ‘s the point, what  did  we think we would achieve?

The event in question was the CWU’s 14th National Youth Education event (or NYEE)1, and so the fourteenth time these questions have been asked. Each year we go somewhere different. But each year many things remain the same.  Things like getting loads of new activists coming to their first ever CWU event. Getting great support from all of the senior officers of the union,  attracting  some amazing  external speakers, running a programme that  educates, enthuses, informs and entertains.

Most importantly of all,  it is seeing  people  almost grow before your eyes as they realise what  their union can and does do, and what they  can and will do  as part of it.  To get that unforgettable feeling  of suddenly realising that you are not alone. It isn’t just you  fighting for your members  rights in a corner somewhere- there are dozens, hundreds of young activists doing and  thinking the same as you.

So what’s the story? How do we do this? Believe me,  all the feedback  is freely given and published unfiltered – “A great weekend” “Can’t wait for next one.” A life-changing experience” Never knew my union could do all this.” Fantastic to talk directly to  the senior people – really inspirational” And so on. Reviews, frankly,  to die for.

The answer is a combination of factors that we (that is the National Youth Committee of the day) try and blend together in a perfect cocktail.

The recipe includes;

  • Strong support and dedicated support from CWU hq
  • Personal support from the senior officers
  • Commitment from a significant number of branches
  • Demand from potential participants – partly fuelled by energetic and positive  ambassadors who have attended in the past
  • An arresting agenda with the right mix of industrial, political and social issues, internal and external speakers
  • A well-worked plan

Of course nothing encourages success like success, so each year’s “good experience” fuels support, demand and expectations for the year after.  But I believe that whilst all of the above points are crucial, it is the “well worked plan” that  holds everything together.

We take people on a journey, as it were – the ice-breaker exercise  is what gets people moving and talking to each other.  The plenary and workshop sessions exposes them to key political issues of the day (this year the EU referendum2, blacklisting3, the British bill of rights4, housing5and the campaign for a fair deal for football fans6). The output for these sessions is in the form of motions. We then bring people back together for a session with the General Secretary – and then split then by occupational grouping  for  sessions with the lead national negotiators for their sectors.  Whilst the young activists are doing that, on the admin side we compile the motions  into  an agenda – complete with  consequential rulings and standing orders –  for a Mock Conference.

The last sessions of the day are a brief explanation of How Conference Works and then people go back into their morning  groups –  to  consider the  agenda we have produced exactly  as a branch would.

The following day,   we hold that Mock Conference .  Many “delegates” are making their first ever  speech in front of the people  – at the lectern ,  with a microphone and “traffic lights” –  there is  no kinder audience , but the debate can be impassioned, vigorous – and hilarious.

However, often motions from the mock conference  crop up  at “real”  policy making  fora in the union so increasingly it is recognised s as something of a test  bed for new policies.

There’s no denying things are tough. Employers often under-value the importance of good, well-trained IR reps and are suspicious of facilitating   the next generation.  Government attitudes  to  trade unions are at bets  hostile and at worse pathologically  negative. Most of the media follow suit and trade union membership  covers   little more than 1 in 4 workers. Amongst the very young (16-24 year olds), it is less than 1 in 10.

But it varies. Our key industrial sectors benefit from relatively high levels of union density and a sound workplace and branch structure. And that  provides a platform  for  campaigning  on  key issues that  affect  us at work and in our communities – such  as  our “Homes 4All”7 housing  campaign. And it also gives us an appetite and understanding of wider political issue that shape our world.

There are of course some slight potholes in the road. We have some structural issues that I think will require a structural solution. Not everyone will like everything on every agenda-  or every colleague they come across. Nothing is perfect or forever and  we  are in no way complacent.

But the ideals we hold and express are, without organisation, just dreams. The fantastic thing about this weekend is that it inspires more dreams, but grounds in them in practicality – in how to make the dreams real.

That is the light shining out from the autumnal gloom this weekend in 2015. That is what we stay strong and positive – and well organised.

Thanks to everyone who makes it happen.

This post was first published at

The search for Something Good: Social Value and Unions


#CriticalMass#15 ( concludes today. There are around 400 attending, all preoccupied with social value, investment and innovation. A lot of people, and a lot of energy, ideas.  A lead sponsor is Social Value International (formerly The SROI Network ), whose mission is to prioritise social and environmental aspects in business.

I’ll be speaking there later so I’m leafing through the attendance list.  I always like to know who is in the audience.  My curiosity is certainly justified: Law firms and academics, charities from Barnardos to RNLI,  representatives of  governments and agencies from  three continents.  A bellowing from the British Council and another cadge from the Cabinet Office. Social start-ups and Ben and Jerry’s. A sprinkling of banks and financial institutions – and lots of organisations with “Good” in their title.

It’s clear that taken together this group represents a comprehensive, influential intentional cross-section on “Social Value” theory and practice. And it’s also clear that  these are people  who  are generally on the right side of the debate  about  socially responsive,  useful  business  activity, either as practitioners or advocates. At the very least they are up for the discussion.


But as I  scroll down  the list ( , I have a sense of growing isolation – and by the time I finish,  I am sure.  Where are the contributions of employees, and the collective voice of employees in this landscape?  It is implicit certainly.  Because you really can’t have true social value, investment and innovation that doesn’t recognise employees as key stakeholders – both in process and output.

But as the lone representative of the trade union movement at this event, I can say it is both strange and worrying.  A priority for the trade union movement is to challenge a narrative that too often equates organised labour with low productivity.  We know that the opposite is usually true.  We point to well established and reliable industrial relations that achieve great change and dynamic innovation. (see  Should we see the interest groups and organisations who are signed up to Critical Mass as  being  “on message” and kindred spirits in  meeting the challenge  of productivity and sustainability  in our economy?.


As the Social Value website makes clear, part of the task is to “make visible what is often invisible”. Perhaps  the distinctive value  that  employee involvement  and respect adds  is not so much  invisible  as  over-looked or simply under-valued.  And while we can – with justification – criticise government for not encouraging and facilitating meaningful employee engagement in the quest for improved productivity,   we too need to be alive to the potential of events such as this one to build alliances and make the case for change.

Because what is invisible or overlooked matters.  It’s not really a pure “social value” project, but a great example surfaced last week when  the Stirling  architecture prize  for  the best new building  went to  Burntwood school in south west London.  The panel celebrated this success not just in architectural but educational terms.  “Burntwood sets a standard in school design that every child in Britain deserves.” they said.   If the cause is so deserving, why is this being over-looked? If the value-add is self-evident, why is so little weight attached to it?

Well, as one of the architects, Paul Monaghan, added “This school is not an expensive building but that said it could no longer be built under the current school building programme – a real pity given the current state of the school estate.” (  Is it inaccurate to say that equates to invisibility?

This invisibility costs far more than we can imagine. It makes no sense and is the product of a form of false accounting. Thank you Social Value for the invite to your event.  I think this could be the start of something good.