Music-hall operatives; a lament

I shed a tear for Bectu. Our sister union's members are voying on a merger with Prospect - with a very strong message in support from their General Secretary Gerry Morrissey. My sadness is inspired neither by sentimentality about the Broadcast, Entertainment, Cinematographic and Theatre Union, nor any quarrel with Prospect - a union of around 120,000 professional workers. The demise of independent unions, focussed on particular industries or skills, however, almost inevitably leads to a drop in membership density and thereby union strength in the sectors in which they have hitherto organised.

Luke Crawley of BECTU

Luke Crawley of BECTU

The announcement on Bectu's website leaves no doubt about imperatives for this move, nor the pain felt by the union's leadership. A sizeable deficit in the union's staff pension scheme has been threatening to bankrupt them for years. Merger with a larger, less-financially-challenged union was not a choice.

It is a fate that has befallen scores of British trades unions. When I first watched TUC Congress on the telly - in the days when it displaced children's television after school - there were almost 200 unions in affiliation. Some had glorious names, among them the Amalgamated Association of Beamers, Twisters and Drawers (Hand and Machine) and the Rossendale Union of Boot, Shoe and Slipper Operatives. Others made for amusing acronyms: gone now, Bifu, Yaplo and Surge.

But the march from workplace to history books of these ornately named collectives is a tragedy that goes beyond the setting of wages and conditions in particular industries.

Trades unions' public faces might well be those of general secretaries on the news pressing the case for their members - or workers in dispute marching, lobbying or picketing. The reality of union membership, particularly among activists, however, is of local, democratic organisation, in branch and workplace units. Coming together, considering common issues and taking decisions by show of hands has the potential to be the most vital and authentic democracy most of us will ever experience. Large as some unions have become, it is these building blocks of local organisation that are the base unit when industrial strength is measured.

Remove the intense focus on a industry or sector and, in most cases, something disappears. Giant super unions have the capacity to do great works, but their impressive aggregate strength flatters to deceive. Frequently they are less than the sum of their parts.

It is all the more reason for us to be thankful for the NUJ.

Compared to other unions we can appear untidily democratic; prone to turning our professional prowess with invective on ourselves; and occasionally to appearing uncomfortable in our white collars. We organise mainly in the private sector, where de-unionisation has been most intense. We represent some of the smallest organised workplaces. Despite this, the NUJ is among scarcely a handful of British unions whose name and form is unchanged from inception to the present day. Membership and finances are stable; we have concluded some impressive agreements in recent years; and recruitment is strongest among the fastest-growing section of journalists - freelances.

Perhaps most important of all, thanks to the commendable pragmatism of our staff, we have resolved the issues of our superannuation scheme - the poisoned chalice that did for Bectu and so many other proud craft defenders.

[NUJ President Tim Dawson; © Lucy Adams]

Whether we have to thank the nature of journalists, the guile of NUJ officials, or just dumb luck; this is not my immediate concern. More important is that we are thankful that our working lives are enriched by such an organisation and that we apply ourselves to ensuring that it endures.

So which part of the roof to fix while its sunny? Perhaps it should be to consider how we breathe new life into our branches and chapels? Only a fantasist would pretend that our branches, the wellspring of NUJ democracy, are in good shape. We need to rebuild their coverage and vitality if they are to nourish the union of the future. Many chapels too owe their survival to one one or two activists, who if they leave, precipitate a crisis. "Strength comes from depth" must be our motto.

I hope that Bectu and its members fare better than others have when their unions have lost their independence. Perhaps with more resources and new ways of thinking they will reinvigorate their workplaces. They might even add some razzle dazzle to the banner beneath which they now march. If the inheritors of the Theatrical and Music Hall Operatives Union (founded 1890) know about anything, surely, it is how to put on a good show?