It’s an idea so simple that it makes you wonder why it has taken so long to se the light of day. But now it is out in the open, there is every prospect that the CWU Supporters initiative will be a game-changer.
This is not rose-tinted or sycophantic appreciation for an organisation I am proud to be an Honorary Member of – the development of union supporters, as opposed to members, is a long overdue but really weighty matter.
First up, ICYMI, what has happened? Well, as this internal CWU document shows, the union has set up a supporters organisation and has invited all those who share the union’s world view – on employment standards, on public services, and on the postal, telecoms and financial services industries in which the union has its members – to join up.
Given an overwhelming ballot in favour of industrial action in Royal Mail, and the looming General Election (CWU is labour-affiliated), it is easy to see the advantages of building a network of those sympathetic to the union’s position – the ability to increase the reach and effectiveness of your messages and information that will in turn shape public opinion.
But the issue is not necessarily straight-forward, which is possibly why the CWU initiative stands out so.
In ostensibly democratic membership based organisations (like but not limited to unions) members and supporters can be seen as a do-nut under an umbrella. The umbrella covers both groups, but only members stand within the do-nut.
This is understandable. Entry and exit criteria are much lower for supporters. They will contribute (i.e. – pay) less or even nothing at all. They will probably not be part of the formal decision making process (and in the CWU scheme they are definitely not) and are not eligible for member benefits.
So, if all this is clear and understood, what’s not to like?
From the members’ point of view, does this divert resources into a parallel organisation. for no tangible benefit? Is supporter status a cut-price alternative to membership? And isn’t industrial strength built on the highest possible level of members – not a network of supporters, however enthusiastic?
This gets to the heart of the issue. There is a philosophical difference between organisations built on supporters and those dependent on members. Some bodies may actively seek high barriers to membership for fear of diluting standards or losing control (professional associations such as those representing doctors or architects for example). Conversely, some take low barriers to entry as a fundamental organisational principle (arguably Extinction Rebellion is an illustration).
As a long-term advocate of having supporters’ organisations sitting along-side membership based ones, I am heartened by the CWU’s deliberately flexible and incremental approach. The supporters’ strategy has built-in monitoring and review, clearly stated options for development and explicit terms of reference. And in these GDPR times, that care and clarity is important in itself.
But above all, this initiative will help test the proposition that the trade union movement, the workers who provide our vital services, and the principles of fair employment and collective voice, enjoy much higher levels of public support than union membership and density statistics suggest.
Featured image credit: Ezra Jeffrey-Comeau/Unsplash