Trade Unions and Television

This is a cross-post from the brilliant A Very Public Sociologist blog.

Cartoon about trade union membershipAt 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?

9 comments on “Trade Unions and Television

  1. John on said:

    The trade unions do have a very weak presence in the media. They should look at hiring the services of a top PR/marketing firm to change that.

    It would be an investment.

    It would also be an idea for them to collectively produce a film on the history of the trade union movement, something along the lines of Ken Loach’s ‘Spirit of 45’.

  2. unionworkeruk on said:

    As a member of Unite I didnt know I could subscribe to the TUC and Unite on Youtube. Maybe that’s part of the reason.

  3. Firstly, I’m really glad to have articles from Phil on here again. His stuff deserves to be much more widely read, and we’ll be carrying more of them from now on.

    Second, I think unions are just terrible with the media. Like most of the left, we’re stuck in the old ways that worked a generation ago: For some, it’s the paper sale, failing in an age of social media. For others, it’s an assumption that workplace meetings still happen and that workers still gather to talk about union issues.

    Neither are gonna work now. But it’s not just that – unions aren’t embedded into the idea of society as a whole. So, you have huge numbers of people marching against the war in 2003, but only 50-60 marching under the RMT banner. But, there were tons of RMT members marching – I saw loads and loads. It never occurred to them to march with their union. (I’m exaggerating for effect, but we all know there’s a basic truth there).

    I think there’s often an idea inside unions that the media is so against us, therefore we won’t get anywhere from using it. But I think that’s wrong. I think we have to fundamentally rethink our relationship with the media. Why aren’t there a whole array of speakers being offered to the media, not just when there’s a strike or when we want to say “we will not accept this” – but over every issue! Why aren’t we getting out there to speak about riots, Woolwich, football, everything?

    My experience is of the RMT, which is a tiny union and an anomaly, given that it has enormous strength in a few key economic areas. But the RMT makes pretty much no use of the media at all. The union just doesn’t understand social media – sure, people are trying, and I’m really pleased with some of the stuff they’re doing.

    But so much of what my union does is “here’s what we’re saying, bye now!” – we aren’t out there really engaging with popular social media outlets. Even the private members groups on Facebook have barely 100 active members. Once you strip out the activists, there really aren’t that many people engaging with the RMT online.

    I’m not sure how to do it, obviously. I think it requires a fundamental rethink of how we see our role in the wider community. In an age of austerity, I think we should be considering instituting social programmes – education, housing advice, even food banks. The Unite community centre in Tower Hamlets shows that unions are thinking about this, but in terms of the media and how we use it to relate to and communicate with people, we’re nowhere.

    I want to leave you with a recent press release from the RMT. It’s an example of a union simply not caring about how it engages with people.

    Here’s the text:

    TUBE UNION RMT warned today London Assembly members risk unleashing the biggest wave of industrial action on London Underground in 30 years after City Hall politicians lined up this morning to attack basic tube workers’ rights including pensions and passes.

    RMT believes that this morning’s attack is part of a co-ordinated, political action designed to kick off the process of stripping away hard-won working conditions and workplace rights across the Underground network.

    RMT General Secretary Bob Crow said:

    “If members of the London Assembly think that they can play politics with our members working conditions and benefits on London Underground then they should think again.

    “I can tell them categorically that any attack on pensions, passes or other hard-won conditions of service would be met with the biggest wave of industrial action on London Underground in 30 years. RMT will not tolerate any sniping away at our members workplace rights and agreements.”

    That’s it. There are no explanatory paragraphs. I haven’t got the slightest idea what this press release is about. What attack? Is it a new law being proposed? Have they said they’re gonna do things to my job? No idea – the press release isn’t serious at all, it doesn’t give the reader the slightest clue as to how serious the attack is, or why we’re threatening such massive strike action over it.

    The most basic of press releases will have a “notes to editors” section at the end. It will explain who we are, what we do, why we’re issuing this press release. It will give news desks enough info, they could even write the story without going to any further sources.

    Look at this press release from a few days ago, from mobile network EE. It is full of information. In fact, if you google “ee shared data plans”, you will see that the press release was used, without any other sources, in hundreds (maybe thousands) of articles – the google link I’ve added there is just for *news* sites, not for advertising sites. The company’s PR people provided so much background, the media was able to present it as an actual news story.

    Obviously, corporate information is different. And obviously, the media is fundamentally against workers’ organisations. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to use the media in every way we can.

    It shouldn’t just be adverts. It should be about the fact that we have a fundamental message for people: unions are how we defend ourselves.

  4. Vanya on said:

    #4 at one stage I remember reading about families of RMT members employed by LU leafleting passengers to explain why they were on strike. Did this happen? If so is it a practice that didn’t take on?

    #2 Made in Dagenham is a great film.

  5. It is not that the media is not interested in unions, but that some unions dont engage with what interests the media.

    There are several parts of this. In terms of leverage on employers, the trade press is important. In terms of impact on members getting stories into local papers is more important than a name check in the Guardian

    Also, working on stories in the Mirror pays off, look at the great piece by Paul Routledge yesterday on black listing.

    The point is that the media has a pre-existing agenda more informed by a commercial instinct of what interests their audience than political bias.

    Some unions fail to engage on that basis. Tony mentions RMT but it is very much stuck in the 1970s in terms of its iconography and agenda, and it gets the attention it does by playing Brother Crow as a pantomime villain.

    Unions like UNISON who attend a lot of process driven meetings and produce worthy reports are not really engaging with mainstream media.

    As for Len, it is about time he realised he has don the GS election, and he can stop posturing.

  6. Josiah Mortimer,

    I really can’t see it. TV advertising is hugely expensive and transient, but more importantly, advertising reinforces a servicing mentality that passive members are addressed by an impersonal bureaucracy.

    We can only build unions based upon activist involvement and workplace organisation.

    All research shows that the best way for unions to build membership is for people to be asked face to face by a workplace colleague.

    (By bizarre coincidence an advert for UNISON is on right now on Cartoon Network, clearly selling a servicing model)

    Now there may be a wider challenge of promoting the role of unions in society at large – but that is a task possibly beyond any single union ; and I very much doubt that TV adds are cost effective in shifting social attitudes

  7. Vanya on said:

    One issue that the RMT (and other rail unions ) should be using all means necessary to publicise is the re-privatisation of the East Coast main line.