NEU members at 23 independent girls’ schools strike against fire and rehire across England and Wales in February, last year. (Picture: Socialist Worker)

It’s fighting back that builds unions. The National Education Union (NEU), for example, has gained 32,000 new members since it announced last month that teachers would be striking.

The PCS union, which has 100,000 civil service workers on strike this week, has recorded its largest membership since 2014-15.

And, at a local level too it is clear that action builds unions. Abellio bus drivers in south London started their current strikes with 950 union members. But since then the size of their Unite union branch has doubled.

The rising membership in unions engaged in struggle has to be set against a long‑term downward trend. The Office for National Statistics in 2021 recorded the lowest level of trade union membership since it began collecting figures in 1995.

The disparity between the rising membership in some unions, and the overall fall is not difficult to understand, says NEU rep Stefan. He says his union has grown “because we are fighting back”.

“Every branch, from the smallest to the really big ones, are recording their largest meetings ever,” he said. “Local officers and activists are really excited and enthused. Those who have been holding the line and struggling have been reenergised by the recent growth.”

And Stefan sees potential for even more. “In Ealing, in west London, where I’m based, we currently have 55 picket lines planned,” he said. “Reps have produced QR codes so new people can join the union straight away using their phone. Anyone not in the NEU can join up to one minute before their contracted school day, and they can then strike.”

Workplace struggles, big and small, can give workers a sense of their own power—changing the way they view their relationship with the employer. Strikes are also a way of bringing new, young workers, who are perhaps less familiar with unions, into the organisation.

Photos of last week’s physiotherapists’ strike, for example, show dozens of people, overwhelmingly in their 20s, running their picket lines. And, action that wins demonstrates the power of the union—and what we can do when we stand together.

The opposite is also true. Unions that shy away from strikes act as a barrier to recruitment, and may even cost the movement members. Their leaders insist that class struggle is “outdated” and that to stay relevant, unions must focus on providing services to members and trying to win over public opinion.

Unions must offer “extras”, or they won’t able to hold on to members, they say. If that’s true, then it’s inevitable that people joining unions in the run up to strikes will leave quickly after they end.

But Stefan insists there’s nothing inevitable about this trend. “In the past when the teachers have had strikes or campaigns, our membership grows, sometimes, dramatically,” he said. “But we have also lost members after strikes, but have managed to retain most.”

“Winning people to stay in the union will rest on the result of this strike”.

Retaining members means maintaining resistance, achieving concrete gains and allowing new and old members a genuine democratic role in running the union. It’s far from the first time struggle has won members. Unions put on lots of new members when they united in a strike by 2.5 million workers over pensions in 2011.

Unison, for example announced that in the West Midlands alone, “The region has recruited more than 640 new members in ten days”. Five days later Unison’s London regional secretary said, “Since the ballot was announced, recruitment has increased by 35 percent on our average monthly figures for this year”.

Unison South West reported, “Applications to join have jumped a massive 126 percent since the result of the union’s ballot for strike action was announced.” In the immediate aftermath of the strike Scottish Unison trumpeted, “During the month of November 4,466 new members joined Unison in Scotland.”

But many of these gains were later lost as the dispute was wound up too soon.

Let’s recruit, organise and keep new members in militant unions.

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