Recruiting members: our No 1 priority

We launched a major recruitment campaign in March 2013 to boost our strength in what general secretary Dave Prentis describes as “the most traumatic time in the union’s history”.

Mr Prentis is keen for the union to represent the tens of thousands of workers who are currently non-members and, as such, have no defence against the government’s attack on their jobs.

He gives this challenge to the union: “In many workplaces we’re 50% unionised. We should be 100% unionised.”

And he promises that UNISON will do everything in its power to help its activists achieve that.

“We need to strengthen the union; we need to make sure that the activists are supported and we need to make sure that our members and potential members know that UNISON is there for them,” he says.


Jobs lost

Around 270,000 jobs have been lost in the past 15 months, in areas where UNISON recruits, with more to come, but there are large pockets of people who have never joined a union – but who need the kind of support UNISON can offer, now more than ever.

“We believe that we’ve lost less than 2% of our membership over the last year,” says Mr Prentis. “That decline is small compared to the number of jobs that have gone, and that’s because of all the hard work that the union and our activists have done during that period.

“We’ve never recruited more. But what we’re seeking to do is increase our rate of recruitment further, to step up the activity.

“Our activists are doing a tremendous job, but they are on the front line and we know the pressure they are under,” he adds. “They have been dealing with the traumas that our existing members are going through. They don’t necessarily have the time to spend on recruitment.

“What we are doing is putting the infrastructure in place – giving them the tools, the levers – which will enable them to recruit far more easily. We want to simplify the way in which people join our union, to make it easy for them, and to strengthen our branches through doing that.”

Eye of the storm

The recruitment drive was backed by adverts on TV, in papers and across social media, plus new integrated recruitment material.

“We want to ensure that non-members know what we can provide, whether it be help when you need it at work, our out-of-hours helpline, legal services, or membership services,” says Mr Prentis “That is the aim of the recruitment leaflets, to help our local people drive recruitment forward.

“Public service workers are in the eye of the storm,” he adds. “What keeps them awake at night is the worry about losing their jobs, about privatisation and the many multinational companies waiting like vultures to pick up our public services; about the pay freeze that has lasted over three years and is making it so difficult to live on their salaries.

There for them

“As their union, they turn to us to help. And we’ve got to be there for them.

“So it’s important that we, as their union, are strong. To be a strong union you have to have growing membership, you’ve got to speak on behalf of the whole workforce, not just a small part of it. There’s no doubt that unions are stronger where they’ve got a high density of members.

“If we want to be a powerful voice for our members, it is imperative that we speak for the majority of the workforce.”

The recruitment drive will be long-term and organic.

“We want to test different ways of recruiting. It’s very much about testing and learning. If certain advertising doesn’t work, for example, we’ll change it.

“If something does work, we’ll do more of it. We will be flexible in the way we move forward. And we want to learn lessons from this, which we can include in our permanent ways of recruiting in the future.”


At the same time Mr Prentis insists that day-to-day organising is as important as ever: “Everything that we do as a union is prioritised so that we are there to defend our members and the services they provide.

“We’ve got to be able to look after members who are facing redundancy, to be there for people who have been privatised, and we’ve got to understand the lives of people who have been subjected to a pay freeze.

“This recruitment drive runs alongside the organising work. We also want to make the best use of our fighting fund organisers and our local organisers.”

UNISON has recruited close to 300 new organisers, paid for by a fighting fund that was set up by the NEC to support branches.

“There’s been a tremendous change of culture in the union in pushing resources into branches through the local organiser and fighting fund organiser scheme, and we now believe that we’ve got the capability to recruit far more strongly, given the resources we are now putting in,” explains Mr Prentis.

“This is about increasing density, making the union strong, putting the union in a position where it will weather the storm and set a legacy for future public service workers.”

“This is about making the union strong. Public service workers turn to us for help. And we’ve got to be there for them.”
Dave Prentis, general secretary


Useful tips on starting conversations

  • Introduce yourself and find out about the worker and their workplace: “How long have you been working here?”; “What is your job/role?”.
  • Identify issues. Start by using general questions and then narrow the focus: “How are things going here at work?”; “What has changed here recently/over the last…?”; “What would you change if you could?”
  • If you are already aware of an issue, use this to open up the conversation: “Are you worried about…”; “What is happening about…”; “How do you think you and your workmates could be affected by…”.