Voluntary sector union membership grows as job worries increase

This autumn, the public sector union Unison held its first national conference exclusively for members in the voluntary sector, where its membership has soared by 50% in the last six years and now totals more than 60,000.

According to the latest national figures, 22% of voluntary organisation employees are now members of a trade union – an increase of 7% in just 12 months.

Mike Short, Unison’s national officer for community and voluntary sector, says some of the rise is due to public sector staff switching employers when their work has been transferred to a voluntary organisation, while others are joining because they are worried about losing their jobs, pay cuts or a worsening of their terms, and are looking for support. “They see being in the union as offering them some security, it’s like having insurance,” says Short. Most of these new recruits are coming from care services, people in support roles with no professional qualifications looking after a range of service users, from children and families to drug misusers or people with learning difficulties.

Stephen Brown is Unison branch secretary at the social care charity Quarriers in Scotland, where he works as an education support worker and he says membership there has increased from 500 to 700 – representing nearly half of the workforce – in the last five years. “More people are joining because they are worried about job security and the cuts. Pay and conditions are also another major issue,” he says.

Another major trade union, Unite, is witnessing a similar rise in numbers, with new members coming from all levels of the workforce and many in frontline professional roles. “They are people who are not our traditional members. They are coming from children’s charities and from advice centres. They are worried about their jobs and are starting to see pay cuts,” says Unite’s national officer for community and not-for-profit sector, Rachael Maskell.

The sector’s trade unions believe their presence in the workplace prompts better negotiation processes around pay and terms and conditions. “Negotiations are conducted in a much more structured and formal basis, which is a benefit to the employer but also to the employees, because everything is more transparent,” says a Unison

But increasing union membership in the workplace raises the prospect of industrial action. This isn’t new to the UK voluntary sector: in 2008, staff from the homelessness charity Shelter withdrew their labour over proposed changes to their terms and condition.
Now, as public funding disappears and voluntary organisations look to save money,
fresh industrial action is not being ruled out, says Unison’s Mike Short, especially if low-paid members are “picked off” by their bosses to save money. “I don’t think our members would ever say ‘never'”, he says, adding that employers will have to prove that decisions are “fair” and that they do not just look for ‘easy targets’: “These two standards are going
to be critical. Unless it’s fair, they won’t rule out industrial action. But it would be a last resort.”

In contrast, Unite suggests that it would look at alternative strategies to protect members’ jobs, including adopting some of the solutions that are often used in manufacturing industries in a downturn – such as cutting hours or job sharing. “Members put the service users before themselves, so they campaign rather than take industrial action.”, says Unite’s Rachael Maskell.

The rise in voluntary sector union membership in the UK is bucking the trend with the rest of Europe. Filippo Addarii, executive director of the Euclid Network – a European-wide organisation which represents director-level professionals in voluntary organisations – says that membership in other countries is shrinking because trade unions, which have traditionally represented the sector, are switching their focus to their public sector member. Addarii says that those working in the sector are keenly watching industrial relations in the sector in the UK, and he worries that the move towards increased unionisation, with the possibility of industrial action, is so serious that it could threaten the very ethos of the sector. “The option of strike action is very dangerous for the sector
and if it happens something has gone very wrong. The third sector should be where you work because you have a passion and it reflects your values. If you lose that passion and values it just becomes a service provider – it doesn’t have a function any longer.”

Back in the UK, Peter Kyle, deputy chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (Acevo) says that trade unions have a lot to offer, especially at a time of spending cuts, when they can support staff through mergers or new ways of working. “They can be a huge asset,” he says. But he agrees that the relationship between bosses and unions can be tense, with some unions particularly unhappy about public sector organisations becoming voluntary organisations or social enterprises.

“My door is open,” says Kyle, “but I won’t just welcome the unions in on their terms – they have to show a genuine appreciation of the work that we do in the third sector.”