As unionists, we pretty much know what we’re against, but what are we for? What values should the union movement be prioritizing, representing and promoting? The New Unionism Network ran an online survey from January 2007 to January 2012* (it is now closed). In it, we asked people to select a “Top 10” among 42 values. Below are  the results, with the subsequent 5 included as well. There is a very clear message in here for those who believe “business unionism” is the way forward. Most members do NOT wish to identify with a simple, self-interested approach. If your union prioritizes wage increases above all else, you might need to do some deeper research into what members actually want.

What values should unions prioritize?

Furthermore, consider the implications for “the precariat” — those workers (including the unemployed and unwaged) who have the least work security in most countries. Most unions have not established an active agenda around this rapidly growing section of the workforce, and yet the top two values, by a huge margin, are solidarity and equality. This strongly suggests that unionists would welcome priority action in this area. As you will see, subsequent values on the list confirm this view.

Now take a look at your union’s website. What values are implied by the text and images on the homepage? Is this what your members are wanting? More to the point, what values are implied in the way you work?

Equally interesting are the values at the opposite end of the survey scale — those which people think unions should prioritise least.

Professionalism 25.0%
Creativity 23.6%
Security 22.7%
Independence 21.4%
Respectfulness 21.0%
Influence 19.6%
Competence 19.2%
Hard work 18.3%
Belonging 16.1%
Social networking 15.2%
Assertiveness 15.2%
Achievement 14.3%
Connectedness 12.9%
Adaptibility 12.9%
Stability 12.9%
Constructiveness 12.0%
Perseverance 10.3%
Flexibility 10.3%
Tradition 9.8%
Helpfulness 9.8%
Rationality 8.9%
Consensus 8.9%
Humour 8.0%
Diplomacy 5.4%
Pragmatism 4.5%
Authority 2.7%
Harmony 2.7%

For instance, near the bottom of the list are helpfulness (35th of 42), pragmatism (40th) and harmony (last on the list). This is not to say that members don’t want these things — just that they don’t rate them as highly as things like solidarity and equality. Again, this is not an encouraging result for those who see union membership as a service-based transaction. Members want more than just a financial return on their investment in fees.

While we are not making any grand claims regarding the scientific validity of these results (see below), we think they serve as a useful basis for deeper discussion. How are values reflected within your own union? Have they been set in some way by the members, or are they subjectively assumed/deduced by officials and paid staff? Online services such as polldaddy and surveymonkey might be worth considering, if you want to do some polling of your own.

In particular, here are three questions you might like to consider:

  • To what extent do the values prioritized in this survey reflect those that seem prevalent in your own union?
  • Consider the final 10 in the ranking. Are there any messages here for the way your union works?
  • How might your union’s strategy, tactics and activities be redeveloped in order to reflect the members’ values?

This will be an ongoing discussion within the New Unionism Network. We’d be interested in hearing your thoughts below.

Written by Peter Hall-Jones, February 2012

* An archive copy of the survey is available here. Please note that we make no particular claim to scientific validity — the survey was intended to help focus a larger discussion on union communications. However, we DID collect IP numbers and verify email addresses, discounting duplicate responses and/or those which were unconfirmed or automatically submitted.

The exact wording of the question was:
What values do you think the union movement should prioritise, represent and promote, within both your workplace and the world?
Please tick no more than ten options.