What do we want? Specific demands!
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Legendary anti-slavery campaigner Frederick Douglass (pictured) once wrote that ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand’. He was spot on.

If you approach the government, or the council, or your employer, and tell them that you are unhappy but do not specify what you want them to do about it, then you are likely to get tea, sympathy and no change. You might have vented, but you will not have solved your problem. Why would ‘power’ give you something that you have not even raised your voice to ask for?

In my view, trade unions too often approach employers with complaints or with requests that do not specify what we want.

I wrote a while ago about a TUC report on black and ethnic minority workers and the pandemic, criticising the report for lacking the clear and bold demands that would logically follow from the damning evidence of racism that made up the bulk of the report. Most of its ‘demands’ were for more reports, but as I wrote then: ‘It makes no difference to a black worker if their employer carries out a race equality audit but carries on hiring black workers through agencies to carry out menial work alongside better-paid, directly-employed white professionals.’

Of course, simply making clear and specific demands does not guarantee that we will win them. That requires campaigning and mobilisation – but that also benefits from clear demands. People are more likely to be inspired to join a campaign for a specific action than for a vague complaint. When was the last time you saw a march led by people chanting ‘What do we want? A working group! When do we want it? In due course!’?!

If an issue gets to the stage of industrial action, it is even more important that workers know what they are striking for, not just what they are striking about; and better still, that they were involved in drawing up the demands.

This approach applies at a workplace level too. Maybe workers are unhappy with the roster, which has too many extreme and weekend shifts. Consider two differing approaches:

  • The union might ask for ‘better work-life balance’, and management might tweak the duties a bit.
  • Alternatively, the union might demand ‘every other weekend off, move four of the very early starts two hours later, cut the working week by two hours without loss of pay, and create five more jobs to enable less anti-social working’. Management are unlikely to immediately roll over and agree, but they will not get away with a superficial tweak.

With the second option, the union has taken the initiative and set the agenda, and workers will judge management’s response against the yardstick that the union has set by making clear demands. Maybe you will end up with less than you asked for, but it will almost certainly still be more than you would have won with the Oliver-Twist-like request for ‘more’.

I train trade union reps, and I often find myself recommending a particular structure for motions, for speeches, for leaflets, for grievances – for all sorts of things! It is a three-part structure: facts, then opinions, then actions. Here are some examples of how you might apply it:

  • You write a motion about an issue. This union notes the facts, this union believes these opinions, this union resolves to carry out specific actions.
  • You write a grievance: what happened, why you are aggrieved, what you want to be done about it.
  • You give a speech: the facts of the issue, what you think about it, what you want people to do if they agree with you.

In all these examples, the final part is essential. Without it, the union can note and believe but do nothing; the member can sound off about their mistreatment but not get a satisfactory remedy; your speech can persuade people but leave them without a way to show their support.

I am also heavily involved in union action on workplace equalities issues. Modern employers like to parade their commitment to equalities, and are keen to employ well-paid equality directors and organise roadmaps, focus groups and awareness-raising events. Too often, it is all awareness, no action. But, for example, what is more use to dyslexic workers – a dyslexia awareness coffee morning, or the employer adopting dyslexia-friendly print layout and installing speech-to-text software? I reckon the latter. What is more useful for workers’ mental health – a ribbon, or reduced workload and shorter hours? Again, I’m plumping for the latter.

So, to finish where we started: be like Frederick. If you want power to concede, then make a clear and specific demand.