I was reading a short discussion online, prompted by a fellow executive member, Murray Sackwild, about levels of engagement in the NEU and demystifying the union for members.

Some were saying that we need to demystify union processes and procedures, while others responded that members will only understand the union properly if they make a conscious decision to get involved as active participants.

Essentially, I think both points are true but it is in fact the interaction between them that is far more important than either point on its own.

Clearly, if we want members to engage with the union, we need to demystify structures, avoid acronyms and language that excludes those who are new to union activity, and create clear paths for engagement and involvement. These might include purposeful, welcoming branch/district meetings, young workers / new professionals groups, and supply, Black members, early years networks, etc.

However, these must be more than just an add-on to the ‘business-as-usual’ of the union, and the aim should be to give members a real say over the core business of the union, and the opportunity to change that core business if it doesn’t reflect their needs and priorities.

Take, for example, district meetings. We have probably all been to a meeting where the rules and procedures are used, intentionally or otherwise, to delay or obstruct business, rather than facilitate it. Many of us have been passive observers in a ‘Handforth Parish Council’ meeting, where there is a dispute taking place, the origins of which are obscured by the mists of time, hopefully in most cases without the misogynist and bullying overtones.

Sometimes, the response to this is to have exciting and engaging speakers and discussions, and to try to keep the ‘formal union business’ to a minimum. But is there a danger here of patronising members?

Having engaging speakers is great but is minimising ‘formal business’ right? This approach always makes me think of parents trying to hide the vegetables in a meal. It might lead to a short term improvement in diet, when the vegetables are successfully concealed, but surely it also sends a more long term signal that vegetables are ‘not really for you’ and to be avoided whenever possible.

Might it not make more sense to consider the type of vegetables, how they are cooked and to try long term to establish healthy eating habits, even if that means acknowledging that you just don’t like some vegetables (sprouts, I’m afraid – I know it’s a bit cliché)?

OK. Maybe I’ve taken this analogy too far but I worry sometimes that, in an effort to make union activity more accessible and engaging, we shift the core decision-making to a smaller and smaller group of people, with voting to ratify committee decisions a necessary email rushed through at the beginning/end of a meeting.

Surely, if the core business of the union isn’t engaging our members, it is the wrong core business, or it is being conducted the wrong way. As this Labor Notes blog says, meetings should give members a sense of power by bringing them together.

I have never yet been in a meeting of educators where a discussion about how we organise to improve the education system, or to improve workplace conditions, or indeed to make our union more inclusive and democratic, has failed to engage their interest.

So, let’s hold meetings where:

  • Every member is encouraged to speak, even if only to introduce themselves at the beginning;
  • Business (the real business, not just standard agenda items) is advertised to members well in advance, with all the relevant paperwork, so they have time to think about their views;
  • Minutes and reports are distributed well in advance and time is only spent on them if there are decision to be taken;
  • Opportunities are taken for members to discuss educational and workplace issues and find common ground and collective strength, with others in the room;
  • Members are not only given the opportunity, but actively encouraged, to place issues on the agenda that they want to discuss.

After all, whose union is it anyway?

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