Trade unions v the media

You can read and hear lots about unions being in conflict with the government. But is the real news

Sad and cynical it may be, but recent news headlines demonstrate that, when it comes to trade unions, the media are interested in only two things: strikes and union interventions in the Labour Party. The trick is for unions to turn this exposure to their advantage when publicising the work they do for individual members.

The headlines that dominated this year's union conference season did not proclaim the progress that unions are making in gaining recognition in the workplace, nor the record amounts of compensation they are winning for people injured or unfairly treated at work. Instead, the media highlighted political conflict.

It was the row over public services that stoked the media's interest. This issue, being important on both an industrial and political level, has placed the trade unions centre stage. This is no doubt a good thing for the trade union movement. However, for those who work with or for unions in order to promote what they do for working people, it is frustrating to see this upsurge of interest when it is such a battle to maintain it on less confrontational stories.

The media constantly tell us that trade unions are no longer relevant, that the world has moved on and times have changed. So why are unions suddenly relevant when they are doing what they were set up to do: defending their members' jobs and working conditions?

The vital word is "defiance". The unions are suddenly "defying" the government's plans. The reality is that the unions have rarely been in conflict with the Labour government under Tony Blair. Unions frequently work in partnership with government and employers, and would prefer to do so where it can be done constructively.

If the answer to the question "What is news?" is "News is people", then why is it routinely such an uphill struggle to interest the national press in stories that feature unions standing up for people? Perhaps because it is forgotten that news is conflict, too. Industrial issues have been shifted to the City pages of the national press, and work is now "lifestyle". One need only read the "work" sections of many newspapers to see that, while workplace issues such as health and safety, working time, equal opportunities and minimum standards - issues championed by the unions for decades - are all considered important, the unions themselves are not.

Many national papers have recently focused on stress at work, and how employers are supposedly becoming more and more terrified of claims against them for stress. Stress is predominantly a hazard of the white-collar workplace, and is thus more likely to be written about than industrial diseases (and because, like RSI, it stalks newsrooms, it is considered all the more newsworthy). However, I suspect that most trade unions would maintain that management attitudes and practices provide little evidence that employers are increasingly fearful of stress claims. No doubt unions would also say that employers working with them, being responsive to their demands, have nothing to fear.

Stress cases are difficult to win. Furthermore, on the rare occasions when cases are successful, the real "winners" are often the lawyers. Unions know that, which is why, in their members' interests, they strive to work with employers and managers to change working practices. However, in all the advice that the press offers on the subject, there is hardly ever any mention of the positive role unions can play.

In the eyes of the media, trade unions have become prosaic organisations that are worth talking about only when they are in conflict with the government over policy.

Talking policy is no crime, particularly if it goes to the heart of what trade unions are all about. But maybe unions have been led, or forced, to talk policy more than people. Unions are well-known champions of the collective project or principle, but they risk not being recognised or listened to as champions of the individual.

Mark Irvine, writing in Guardian Society on 5 July this year, urged the unions to form strategic alliances with parties other than Labour in order to strengthen their role as campaigning organisations. He accused them of not doing so because "the unions are not keen public campaigners these days, or they would have been making a fuss long before now".

The suggestion that trade unions are not campaigning organisations rather proves the point about the relationship between unions and the press. Every day, the unions win thousands of pounds in compensation for people injured at work, they win back jobs for people who have been unfairly dismissed or discriminated against, they campaign against unjust laws and they help to shape national and European policies that touch the lives of all workers.

However, to seize the newsdesk's attention, campaigning has to involve conflict. The media's conflict-obsessed approach can have positive outcomes. Is it possible, for example, to turn that obsession into a positive by emphasising best practice in employment when feeding stories to the press? When a case is won, instead of simply sending out the message that "this is a great result", trade unions should warn employers and the government that there will be mayhem unless the employment practices that created such a case are not changed. Conflict, if that is what employers and the government want, can be just around the corner. The success of union campaigns and cases is ignored by the media at their peril.

Jennie Walsh is head of media for Thompsons, the trade union law firm

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The love of a robot