“You wouldn’t drive a car without insurance: don’t go to work without insurance. Union membership is insurance for your job. Join the union!”

I’ve encountered this argument for union membership repeatedly, across several unions, sometimes in official union material. The argument is sometimes made even in generally radical and combative unions, like the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), one of the branches of which reminded workers in a 6 June Facebook post: “We can’t support you […] unless you are already a member. A bit like car insurance, you can’t have an accident then phone for cover.” And in my union, the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT), widely and largely justifiably seen by much of the rest of the labour movement as having a more radical approach to organising than many other unions, the argument is common.

It undoubtedly has positive motivations. Many reps and activists see the primary function of trade unionism as protective: the union is there to “protect” workers’ jobs, in much the same way as an insurance policy would protect your car or phone against damage or loss. And for sure, trade unionism does have an essential “protective”, or self-defensive, function, defending our jobs against employers’ attempts to screw down our pay, terms, and conditions, or to cut our jobs entirely. But emphasising the “protective” aspect of trade unionism in this way, particularly as a recruitment technique, can lead to passivity.

“I’ve been an RMT member 20 years: thankfully I’ve never had to call on them, touch wood, but it’s good to know they’re there if I need them.” I’ve heard some version of that idea expressed frequently by colleagues in mess rooms across the London Underground network where I work. Never having had any engagement or contact with the union is turned into a positive, something to be relieved about, just as one might be relieved about never having had a car accident. The union is figured as something external to the worker, to which a fee is paid in exchange for the provision of “protection”, on an individual basis, should the need arise.

This conception of trade unionism can also mean that union membership is threatened if a worker has a bad experience with individual representation. If you view your union as an insurance policy, and your relationship to it as essentially financial – i.e., you pay a monthly fee to an external body to render you a service – then if that “service” falls below your expectations in some way, if you feel you’re not getting “value for money”, then the logical response is to stop purchasing the service and look for another one. As reps, we often tell members, “if you don’t like what the union’s doing, it’s up to you to get involved and change it.” Quite right, but if that member has been recruited explicitly on the basis of seeing their union membership as equivalent to an insurance policy, why would it ever occur to them to do that? It would never occur to any of us, dissatisfied with an insurance policy or other similar product, to seek out meetings the company might be holding and attempt to democratically alter its direction. Insurance policies don’t work that way.

On London Underground, the nature of our work does present some challenges to union organising that are perhaps not as acute in more geographically cohesive, or simply smaller, workplaces. The Tube network is a sprawling industrial combine, with workers spread across hundreds of workplaces throughout the capital - including stations, train depots, signaling centres, administration offices, engineering depots, and more - performing hundreds of different job roles. The outsourcing of parts of the job, most prominently cleaning but also various aspects of engineering and maintenance work, means that the workforce is divided between a number of different employers. Workers live over a wide area (I’ve had colleagues who commuted to our central London station from Grantham and Coventry!), and the significant proportion of our work is shift-based, meaning that there isn’t necessarily an “ideal” time to hold union meetings or activities.

Workers are also divided between unions. Four unions organise on the Tube – RMT, TSSA, Aslef, and Unite. Aslef is a sectional union open only to drivers, with membership promoted very much as offering a “specialist” service for the allegedly particular and special interests of drivers; TSSA is a small union with members mainly working in office-based clerical and managerial roles, with some membership amongst mainly managerial grades of station staff; Unite has only a small presence in some engineering depots, largely a historical hangover from membership of the old engineering unions that eventually merged into Unite, via Amicus. RMT, the majority union by a considerable distance, is the only all-grades, industrial union on the job, and the only union to organise outsourced workers such as cleaners.

The challenges posed to union organisation, while real, are surmountable: some union branches experiment with varying the time and location of their meetings to maximise attendance; many organise regular workplace walkabouts to ensure the union is a visible presence in the workplace itself. But this good work will be limited and undermined unless the very process of building the union promotes union membership as being about active engagement with a collective organisation, rather than the passive purchasing of an insurance policy. If workers are recruited to the union on a basis that would make even the idea of attending a meeting seem bizarre, we’re creating additional and unnecessary challenges.

The gap between worker and union is exacerbated in other ways, even on terrain where it should be much easier to close it. Officers, in my union and others, often commend workers who have participated in industrial action for “supporting their union”, or for enabling union negotiators to make their arguments more forcefully. Here too, the implication is that the union is a body that somehow sits outside of or above its members, and that the purpose of the strike was to strengthen the union’s hand in negotiation, rather than for workers to build their collective power and force direct concessions from the employer.

In my union’s case, the issue is less one of formal democracy than of culture and consciousness. While there are a great many improvements that could be made, in constitutional terms, the RMT is amongst the most democratic unions in the contemporary labour movement. The central bureaucracy of unelected staffers is small, and almost anyone with any ability to influence the union’s direction – from workplace reps through to full-time regional organisers and national officers – is directly elected by members. Union branches are able to submit policy directly to the National Executive, including requests for disputes and ballots, rather than, as in some other unions, having to process such requests through a complex labyrinth of unaccountable sub-committees before action can even be considered. The National Executive Committee itself is composed of lay representatives, seconded from their day jobs for a fixed three-year term, after which they must return to the shop floor for at least three years before restanding. The formal democratic structures exist. The challenge is to activate them.

To do so requires a fundamental shift in how the union is explained to new starters and non-members, and re-explained to existing members. This means moving away from positioning the union as an external body which can be paid to render a service, and towards explaining it as an instrument through which we can turn mess room grumbles into collective action to change the workplace. It means seeing taking action not as a matter of “supporting our union”, but of supporting ourselves, of using our union as a weapon to advance our interests.

Reps’ training is crucial to affecting this shift. Elected workplace reps are the frontline of the union in any workplace; an insurance-policy model figures their roles as passive, waiting for a member to approach them with some piece of individual casework, which they will undertake to the best of their ability to get the best outcome for the individual member. A model which orients to collective action and catalysing struggles implies a different approach, including by seeking to collectivise what initially present as individual issues. This means training reps not only to know company procedure and to act as effective individual advocates in disciplinaries and grievances, but training them to be on-the-job leaders, agitators, and organisers: what the US collective Labor Notes calls “troublemakers” in the workplace. A union whose workplace rep cohort is composed of troublemakers, constantly attempting to engage more members into union activity, identify collective issues and catalyse struggles will find itself much better able to take the offensive, rather than running to stand still or fight defensive struggles to retain the status quo. The difference can ultimately be summed up like this: the role of a union rep in a workplace, and a union collectively, is to start fires, not put them out.

Part of my role as a rep involves speaking to classes of new starters at the company’s training school about why they should join the union. In the presentations I give, I talk explicitly about why union membership is fundamentally not like purchasing an insurance policy: rather than buying a product, we’re joining a collective, through the structures of which we can take collective action to improve our lives. The questions the new trainees ask are often excellent: “How do you decide when to go on strike?” “If station staff are striking, who decides whether the train drivers join them?” “How do you become a union rep?” This is anecdotal and impressionistic, but despite everything – the 50% decline in union membership since organised labour’s peak in 1979, and the historically low levels of strikes – the experience of speaking to new trainees continuously re-convinces me that the potential for rebuilding unions on the basis of democratic engagement and collective action, rather than as providers of individual services and protection, still exists. We can develop that potential by training our reps to be troublemakers, and equipping them, and our wider membership, with the skills to go on the offensive against the employer. This, ultimately, is what a trade union is.

Socialists and other radicals working on the Tube have pressed this case in various ways down the years; London Underground is the site of what is perhaps Britain’s longest continually-produced socialist workplace bulletin, Tubeworker, a monthly bulletin produced by and for London Underground workers which has made the case for militant trade unionism and socialist politics on the job since 1991. It has focused particularly on foregrounding the struggles of outsourced workers, via a regular “cleaners’ column”. Other projects aiming to coordinate on-the-job troublemaking have emerged sporadically, including the Workmates Collective set up by syndicalist-minded track maintenance workers in the late 1990s.

The union’s ongoing campaign amongst outsourced cleaning workers has, at its best, focused on training and developing cohorts of reps and activists to agitate and organise amongst their co-workers, rather than recruiting cleaners to the union on the basis that union officers could solve their problems “for” them. Here, the sheer scale and number of issues – short payment; lack of uniform and protective equipment; bullying and harassment from managers and supervisors; problems related to immigration status; lack of travel passes; lack of adequate workplace facilities; and many more – mean that a “service-provision” model would simply not be sustainable, even if it were desirable.

The centrality of our work to the day-to-day functioning of social and economic life in London means we have a unique potential power. But that power only matters if it is used. Using it effectively requires educating workers to see the union not as a service provider but as an instrument of struggle. As Labor Notes’ Troublemaker’s Handbook 2 puts it:

The first time a group of workers went together to face the boss and say ‘we want things to be different here’, a union was born. Each time that primal confrontation takes place for the first time in a workplace, a union is born or reborn. The union in law in fact is a group of workers acting together, confronting their employer for their common concerns […] When we confront the employer, we show that we can act together as a group, and we gain power vis-à -vis the employer. And the union is reborn.


Daniel Randall

Daniel Randall is a railway worker and a rep for the National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport workers (RMT). He writes in a personal capacity.