Recruitment conversations

1 August 2023

The single most common answer people give when asked why they are not part of the union is 'no one asked me'.

Important We must ask people to join the union

Having a planned approach to recruitment is vital. Knowing who we are recruiting is important - use the guidance on mapping your structure. But having some kind of planned conversation or even a loose script can be helpful:

  • it can make recruiters more confident. It can be daunting going to up to work colleagues or strangers and asking them to join the union - having a script can help
  • having a common approach to the language you are using makes the union seem better prepared to non-members
  • having a common approach allows recruiters to share feedback from non-members more easily.

Recruitment conversations - the steps

    Introduce yourself. Make it clear you are from the union and that you want to talk to them (and, more importantly, listen to them) about what matters to them at work.
    Ask them about work. Maybe something like "what is something you would like to change about work that you couldn't just agree with your manager?" or "what are the three things you'd like to change about work?" It could be something specific to your workplace "what do you think about the X change the employer is making?" or specific to UCU nationally "what do you think about the pay offer/strikes etc?" The vital thing is to spark a conversation ON THEIR TERMS. Your job is now to listen (it should be about a 70/30 split between listening and talking). You could intervene to check or to ask open questions ("how do you feel about that?" "Does that seem fair to you?" "What do other people think?" etc). You need to listen carefully to the issues you raise because you'll need them at the next stage.
    Use the issues they have raised to turn them into Why You Should Join The Union answers. This is the key part of the conversation. You need to relate their issues back to them. If they said (for example) 'My workload is too high' then you could use the workload issue in the FE Respect Charter as an example of what the union is doing about it. If they comment on the cost-of-living crisis you can use the national or local pay claim. Make sure you have a few stock examples of what UCU is doing up your sleeve. The other technique is to get them to think about why joining together with other workers would provide a better chance of getting the employer to listen to their issue.
    Ask them to join the union. Wait. Don't fill the awkward silence that will follow (we'll come to answering difficult questions in a bit). Make sure you have an easy way to join available - joining page open on your tablet/laptop/phone etc.
    It can be useful to get them to think about what their boss/manager/employer will say when they join. Ask them 'what might happen if you join the union' and then put their mind at rest or explain what the union will do to protect them if their fears come true.
    These could be - fill in the form and hand it back, ask another colleague to join, come to the next meeting, put up a poster, put on a badge etc. It is important not to leave the conversation there - offer them something else to do or some form of activity.

Dealing with difficult questions

People may respond with a range of reasons why they don't want to join. These three techniques can help:

Acknowledge/affirm: 'I know how you feel and that is a fair point. However...' Acknowledge the feeling not the excuse

Answer: If they have a question, answer it.

Redirect: Take them back to the issues they raised at step 2 and ask then how we can deal with that issue

Questions like 'What is holding you back?' can be helpful. Always come back to the issues they raised in step 2.

How to answer the 'why join' questions

Q: Why should I join if I get all the benefits anyway?

A: UCU advice, representation and other benefits are only available to fully paid-up UCU members. While non-union staff get the benefits won by UCU members they do not get an opportunity to have input to any debate on the issues being negotiated. UCU's bargaining achievements are based on its membership strength, so the more people who join, the more UCU can achieve.

Q: Will I have to take industrial action if I join?

A: Industrial action is only taken as a last resort, and cannot take place without the consent of a majority of UCU members via a secret postal ballot. Most situations are resolved via expert UCU negotiators, supported by UCU members, long before the threat, let alone the use of industrial action is required.

Q: Won't joining the trade union damage my career prospects?

A: No. Trade union membership is a right. As UCU offers protection in the workplace, not joining is far more likely to damage your future career if something does go wrong.

Q: What have trade unions ever achieved?

A: Most of the gains made in the workplace are down to unions. Without unions there would never have been paid holidays, superannuation schemes, equal opportunities or health and safety legislation. Without the constant work of unions there would be no annual pay rise, nor preferential pension schemes. Unions offer a voice at work, expert advice and information and protection.

Q: I am on a fixed-term contract, why should I join?

A: Staff on fixed-term contracts are vulnerable, especially at the beginning and end of a contract, or if your contract is very short and is likely to be renewed or extended. Your UCU branch can represent and advise you. Information provided by the UCU is often not provided by employers. What happens when your contract ends - is it fair for the university to 'dump' you? Is this really the best outcome for your work, and for your own career? What are your rights? Members of the UCU are campaigning for all university staff to have open-ended contracts - UCU believes this is best for everyone involved. Our ability to campaign and negotiate at the local level depends on active membership interest and participation. It is extremely difficult to negotiate effectively on behalf of a group of staff who are not members.

Q: I can't afford to join, but I'll think about it.

A: UCU membership starts from £1 per calendar month depending on earnings and for some it's free.

UCU negotiators also regularly achieve annual pay increases higher than the employers' original offer and this easily covers the subscription rate. But the real question is: can you afford not to be a member? Not to have a say in the way your department and indeed institution is run; not to have access to expert advice, up-to-date information and guidance; not to have access to representation, including legal representation, if things do go wrong? UCU can only help you if you are a member.

The suggested frequently asked questions above should help you in your one-to-one recruitment work. If you come across any that you would like an answer for, or any you think would be useful to colleagues across the UK, or need any other advice, support or guidance in the vital work you do as an UCU activist, you can contact the organisers at your regional office or email the campaigns team on .

Being a successful door-knocker

  • Have a list of current members so that you know who to target (you should be able to request this from a member of your local committee). Take along any current campaign leaflets, copies of local newsletters, posters and promotional materials. As well as handing them to potential members, they can be left in coffee rooms and on notice boards as you move around the department.
  • Find out about the potential concerns of non-members; ie, are they on fixed-term contracts, are there particular issues in the department, are there new starters who you can target? If there is a local rep, ask them about the issues, and if there is a best time or place to approach staff. Try and involve the rep in the activity in some way - if unavailable on the day, you could ask him/her to do a follow up door-knock to catch those who were out, and those who needed further information or showed some interest in joining.
  • Publicise the activity in advance, linking it to a campaign. An email or poster could say: 'UCU will be distributing a leaflet updating colleagues on the latest in the pay negotiations and to discuss issues of concern to you. For anyone not around but who wishes to contact us, please email ' Alternatively, a letter and leaflet can be placed in pigeon holes two or three days prior to the door-knocking.
  • Having a newsletter, leaflet or survey to distribute gives you a reason to knock on doors and makes it easy to start a conversation. Point out to non-members the amount of time our members / their colleagues spend in pay negotiations from which all staff will Also, the fact that we can't fully support anyone whose problem occurs before they join us.
  • Print a 'Sorry we missed you' note for staff that aren't in. Take contact details of those who are out and follow up later with either another visit or an email.
  • Have a pen and pad ready to take down any questions and contact information from potential members. It is, of course, not necessary to know everything and this gives you an excuse to take a potential member's contact details and then follow up later with both the answer to their query and also ask if they have decided to join
  • If you aren't from the department and there is no rep, talking to members about what you are doing and why it is important might encourage someone to
  • If a potential member shows some interest in joining give them the link to join online - https://join.ucu.org.uk - so that they will be covered. If they do this in front of you, you can help with any questions about the form.
  • A table set up in a busy area at the same time would increase our profile while carrying out the door-knocking.
  • Door-knocking can be more effective when carried out by small teams especially if you make it obvious that you are campaigning for UCU, ie by wearing UCU lapel badges, etc.
Last updated: 28 September 2023