This is a cross-post from the brilliant A Very Public Sociologist blog.
At my Unite branch meeting tonight, we heard the welcome news numbers had increased by an additional 47 people on last month. That, combined with recently released figures that tentatively suggest a reversal of trade unions’ downward spiral is heartening. After all, getting greater numbers into Britain’s largest membership civil society organisations is what all labour movement people are, or should be, about. Now, as you might expect, especially over the course of a long decline, there has and continues to be extensive debates on how to get our unions relevant again. Some comrades believe that offering bold, fighting alternatives will see millions of working people march back into trade unions. Others suggest offering a fancy credit card and discount holidays is just the ticket
Whether it’s political messages or gimmicks, getting ordinary folk to pay attention is still a difficult job. You can therefore understand the trade union enthusiasm for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They offer quick, efficient and cost-free ways of putting a message across without having to rely on a middleman. But, for whatever reason, the outlets we have massively under-perform. My union’s official Twitter feed only has 19,000 followers. For a behemoth of 1.2m members, that’s not great. The TUC’s media account is in fact worse, managing just 12,000 followers. Sadly, their respective YouTube presences are equally featherweight. Unite’s channel has 439 subscribers and 277,727 views. For the TUC channel it’s only 185 subscribers and 107,057 views. Sadly, these are typical of trade union social media in general. Clearly, a lot of thinking and work needs doing around the content offered and how it should be used strategically. But that is a book, never mind a blog post, in itself.
Alongside the sexiness of the new media, I do think a lot of trade union press departments are enamoured with the printed word. Like mainstream parties, radicals of the left and neanderthals of the far right, the stories and spin that clogs the dailies are still front and centre in our movement’s media people’s minds (and not a few activists too). And to a degree, it’s right that this is the case. The national dailies still have a paid circulation of approximately eight million, and a reach way beyond that. But, apart from The I, all papers are locked in stubborn, long-term decline. A mass audience is there but it is shrinking. And, of course, taken as a whole Britain’s newspapers are structurally biased against trade unions.
But I think a trick is being missed. What about television? I mean, when was the last time you saw an advert for a trade union on our screens? I can’t remember ever seeing one, though this – courtesy of Unison – did the rounds in the late 90s:
Yes, primetime TV advertising can be expensive, but not prohibitively so for the larger unions or the TUC collectively. Where else could a union reach a captive audience of millions without having its message edited and distorted by some latter day Kelvin MacKenzie? So instead of pouring time and effort into media work with comparatively little to show for it, shouldn’t unions embrace a little bit of 20th century thinking and look again at television to publicise their work and get the members in?