Is check-off checking out?
Posted: 25 October 2022
The deduction of member subscriptions directly from wages is great for union members and their unions. When you have it agreed with an employer, check-off makes signing up new members easy, collecting their subs automatic, means members never need to worry about renewals or failing payment methods ensures subscription fees reflect the member’s increasing wages, so they’re always paying their fair share. It also means unions can collect subs with minimal bureaucracy and cost (such as banking fees), as they get all their subs in a lump sum.
However, the system isn’t perfect.
Employers who cooperate with check-off do so voluntarily - there’s no statutory obligation to start a check-off system, nor to continue one indefinitely. In return for operating check-off, employers get to work more collaboratively with the union, and to know which of their employees are members.
But these arrangements aren’t necessarily forever. Employers can decide to end check-off. It’s a very serious escalation on their part, and no union is going to take it lying down, but it would be a major inconvenience and potentially catastrophic for union finances.
Worse, a Tory government could decide to end check-off entirely, or to make it more inconvenient (for example, before 1998 when Labour changed it, check-off had to be renewed by a member every three years). Again, a huge problem created for unions at the stroke of a pen. As the cost of living rises and workers are forced to fight harder to get pay increases, the Tory government will look at ways to hurt unions. Check off is a prime target.
So, the question is, what’s the plan if and when check-off comes under attack? What do unions need to do? Is it possible to replicate its advantages with Direct Debit, while negating the downsides?
We think so.
First, you need a great “join” form for the union. Would-be members need to be able to complete it every time, it needs to work on every device and context and never stop working or run slowly (hint: Join Together helps with this).
Second, unions need to prioritise online Direct Debits. There’s no other party involved in a Direct Debit transaction. They’re directly between the member and the union - the only person who can choose to end it is the member. You might worry that “people check their bank statements and cancel Direct Debits, but they never check their payslips” is a good reason to try and stick with check-off for as long as possible, but in tough economic times, unions have to prove their value too. If a member looks at their £15 a month subscription and thinks “not worth it”, that’s a much bigger problem than “the member is paying with the wrong method”.
Third, you need to ask members to keep you up to date with their pay, so they pay the right subs. Many unions we’ve spoken to worry that if they sign up members via Direct Debit, they’ll find the member paying the same rate 20 years later. They won’t! Just ask them for the right number once a year, tell them the rate they’ll be paying and send them a note to let them know their rate has changed. You can ask them if they’ve changed job or moved house at the same time (again, Join Together helps with this).
We’ve spoken to people in unions for years about the risks associated with an attack on check-off. The movement may get lucky and it could never happen but if it does, it’ll be a very painful moment, whether it comes from a large employer attacking a single union, or from a political move by an adversarial government.
A strategic approach to this - starting by moving the focus of signing up new members from check-off to Direct Debit, followed by gradually migrating check-off members from one payment method to the other - reduces this risk.