At the turn of the 20th century, a new system was introduced into manufacturing in the UK. It was called piecework. An unintended consequence was that workers turned to the workmate who knew how to add up to check the employer’s piecework calculations. If the employer got it wrong the workmate would have to argue the case. So it was that a system of shop stewards developed. A system that became extensive throughout the UK during the First World War with the growth of the shop stewards’ movement.
We know that the coronavirus pandemic has led to thousands being laid off. When furlough ends, thousands more will be made unemployed. A gargantuan slump will ensue. Often, unemployment means that members lose touch with their union and drop out of membership. We cannot allow that to happen.
We need a new way to organise to keep our members in touch with the union when they are no longer at work. Indeed, even those who are lucky enough to be in work need to have more regular contact with our union in these uncertain times.
When the lockdown commenced, my branch set up a system of Unite Phone Buddies. We downloaded the membership database and sorted the members into neighbourhoods by doing a post code alpha-numeric sort. We then grouped them into all those with phone numbers. We ended up with the details 2,300 members who had phone numbers grouped by area. We then got activists to volunteer to be Unite Phone Buddies and allocated them 30 or so members in their area to telephone. The branch committee did a trial and we produced a telephone script.
We largely used email to transfer pdf documents to our Phone Buddies and only used the post when we had volunteers who were not computer savvy.
Members were delighted
All our members without exception were delighted that the union branch had bothered to contact them to see how they were coping. Everyone took note of the phone buddy’s number.
The strength of our union has always been determined by the resilience of rank and file organisation. We need a new way to organise during the pandemic. If our union nationally did a post code sort of all our members to group them into their local area and then got activists to sign up as Unite Phone buddies a new rank and file organisation could be created.
Each month the phone buddies can be sent a union agreed script to communicate the latest information. Moreover, the Phone Buddies would become the “ears” of our union. Feedback direct from the members will ensure we all stay focused.
By Mick Rice, Unite Glasgow retired members’ branch secretary