The unions are gaining in strength in the insurance industry and attracting more recruits, says Jason Woolfe

AMICUS is a hungry beast. The biggest union in general insurance was only born on 1 January this year after a merger of the AEEU and MSF, but already it is looking to expand further. It has made no secret of its ambitions.

A merger with CGNU's staff association should be completed by the summer and it is in talks to merge with Unifi, the second-largest union in the sector, creating one super-union for financial industries.

But what would this offer its members? And what do insurers think of the unions?

Amicus already counts 100 Labour MPs among its membership and boasts proudly of its lobbying power.

Partnership agreement
Any further growth can only strengthen its influence. Amicus and Unifi already work closely together in many areas. At AXA, the two unions have a partnership agreement together, as well as with the company.

AXA head of employee relations Nigel Brown says: "Although obviously we don't always agree about everything, the relationship is generally very good."

At Legal & General, the company volunteered to audit its workforce on equal pay between men and women, the subject of a current campaign by Amicus.

But it is a different story at Direct Line, which flatly refuses to recognise unions.

Churchill was in a similar position until its purchase of the Prudential's general insurance business brought in a number of Amicus members.

Churchill set out its attitude in a statement: "Churchill recognises Amicus MSF division in exceptional circumstances where existing agreements are in place (for example, the recently acquired general insurance business of Pearl and Prudential). Other than these exceptions, Churchill people have never shown any interest in being represented by a union despite several attempts by the union to interest them in membership.

"Churchill was recently voted one of the UK's best 20 companies to work for in the Sunday Times."

But David Fleming, the new national secretary for finance at Amicus, clearly has Churchill in his sights. He says: "Our targets are to go into areas that are effectively greenfield sites - that would include Churchill - and to improve and advance membership."

Other companies, including Bupa, Liverpool Victoria and Zurich, are also possible targets for increasing membership.

Fleming says: "Suspicion of trade unions will always be there, but we have proved by our record in the insurance sector that not only do we represent people well, but also we are a good organisation. If we support the business and make it successful, we might share in that success."

He adds: "We would welcome the opportunity to merge. The vision for the future is to become the biggest finance sector trade union in the world." N

Why I joined a union
Paul Jamieson, 43, joined MSF (now part of Amicus) within a week of starting his job as an insurance adviser with Royal & SunAlliance (R&SA) in Liverpool.

He says: "A lot of young people can't see the relevance of unions.

"But there is a lot of relevance, in benefits and terms and conditions, whether it's pension rights or critical illness cover.

"All the management where I work are in the union. I have been there for eight-and-a-half years and the management have been there the same length of time.

"The way things are done here reflect goodwill and a working relationship that I don't think would exist in a non-unionised organisation.

"R&SA recently bought a company called Emergency Services in Hinkley, Leicestershire.

"Because all the staff there were coming under the R&SA contracts, they automatically had their working hours cut to 35 a week and they all received hourly rate increases.

"This was because these things had been fought for by the unions. They had never had representation before and things have changed tremendously for them."

What you get for your money
Union membership rates vary, but someone working full time could expect to pay the equivalent of about £8.50 a week to join Amicus.

Unions have always centred their work on campaigning for better pay and protection against redundancy.

Nowadays, unions in the finance sector are just as likely to offer members advice on legal issues, pensions, health and safety, environmental concerns and help with grievances or disciplinary matters.

They offer training and pursue workplace policies that may include equal opportunities and anti-bullying.

Amicus spokesman Richard O'Brian says a worker in a unionised company earns on average 6% more than one in a non-unionised company.

One problem unions face is that many of the benefits they may win for their members - such as higher pay - can also be enjoyed by non-members.

O'Brian likens membership to belonging to a motoring breakdown service.

He said: "But, unlike the AA, you cannot join a union at the roadside.

"When the crunch comes, you are on your own."