31 Jul 2012

Which trade unions can you join online?

Back in 2000 I was keen to push back boundaries in the way unions used IT. I wanted to create the first online joining system for a trade union.

After finishing at university I started working for a union, and I was soon put in charge of  their website. I took the opportunity to create the first union website to enable members to view and amend their details online along with the first ‘virtual branch’ system.

My next step was to introduce the first full ecommerce online joining system that didn’t depend on any paper signatures or other offline actions. But I soon hit a snag. The union's membership database wasn’t compliant with paperless direct debit, and I had to wait a few years while a merger brought in a new membership system to be able to move forward.

By then the IT and telecoms union Connect had already launched their own ecommerce joining system, and the system I created came online a few months later. This all came back to me recently when I was talking to John Smith, Membership Officer at the TSSA.

TSSA recently introduced an online joining system of their own, and they faced a lot of the same issues I had, such as refining direct debit procedures, getting recognised by security certificate companies, and liaising with membership system providers. John told me that while he had been told the TSSA was one of the last unions to set this up, his research showed that this wasn’t the case.

As a result, I thought I’d have a look and see how many unions offer full online joining without any need for a physical signature.


Union Online joining     Notes Full online joining    
Accord Yes Print off direct debit form. No
Advance No   No
Aegis Yes Form that generates an email. No
AEP No   No
ATL Yes   Yes
BALPA Yes Form that requires separate payment. No confirmation message, so unsure if the form is broken or not. No
BDA No   No
BECTU Partial Only freelance staff can join online. Others must download a form. Partial
BFAWU No Either broken or misleading link. No
BOS TU No   No
BSU Yes but broken There is a form, but it submits to a broken page. No
Community Yes   Yes
Chartered Society of Physiotherapy ? Registration required first. ?
CWU No Different downloadable forms required for different employers. No
EIS Yes Paper direct debit form required. No
Equity Yes   Yes
FBU No   No
FDA Yes   Yes
GMB Yes   Yes
HCSA No   No
MU Yes   Yes
NAPO Yes Form that generates an email. No
NASS Yes Form that generates an email. No
NASUWT Yes   Yes
Nautilus Yes   Yes
NGSU Yes The form boxes are difficult to read as they have white borders against a white background in both Firefox and Chrome. Only visible in Internet Explorer. Yes
NUJ No   No
NUM No   No
NUT Yes   Yes
PCS No   No
PFA No   No
POA No   No
Prospect Yes   Yes
RMT Yes   Yes
Society of Chiropodists and Podiatrists No   No
Society of Radiographers Yes   Yes
SURGE Yes No payments taken online. Potential members probably contacted afterwards. No
TSSA Yes   Yes
UCAC Yes A paper direct debit form is required. No
UCATT Yes   Yes
UCU Yes   Yes
UNISON Yes   Yes
Unite Yes   Yes
Unity Yes Form problems in Firefox and Chrome. Only works properly in Internet Explorer. Yes
URTU No   No
USDAW Yes The form takes personal details on an unencrypted page, risking privacy. No
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Yes   Yes

Source: the websites of each TUC affiliated union. July 2012.


The table above shows the results of my research. Of the 51 websites I looked at, 31 offered some type of online joining, with 21 of these offering full online joining. This means that less than half of all TUC affiliated unions are offering full online joining.

A lot of the unions who don’t have this facility in the list are small with limited resources, such as staff unions. Without the knowledge and resources, setting up a full online joining system can be difficult.

However, this hasn’t stopped the Nationwide Group Staff Union (NGSU) or Unity, who have 13,000 and 5,000 members respectively. The bigger surprise is that there are still a number of larger unions that don’t offer full online joining yet, unions like PCS, the CWU and USDAW.

Setting up online joining can be problematic. Often union rules need to be changed to allow paperless signatures or a change in procedures such as branch officials being required to sign off the new application.

Also, a number of technical barriers need to be overcome, such as security or how to link the website with the membership system. If your union is looking to set up online joining, below is a brief summary of the process:

  1. Make sure your membership system is signed off to be a paperless originator of direct debits - know as AUDISS. This can take a while, so get this process started first.
  2. Check the union rules to ensure that there are no problems with online joining. If there are, request a change to the rules as soon as possible.
  3.  Look at how the data will be transferred between the website and the membership system. Even in the worst case scenario where the membership database has limitations and can’t import the data directly, direct debit applications (not credit card!) can still be encrypted and then sent over for manual inputting.
  4.  If the union takes other forms of payment, such as credit card or ‘check off’, build this into the process as well. Credit card payments should be compliant with the PCI SSC standards.
  5.  Plan the security requirements. Make sure the website has a security certificate for the encrypted pages and be very careful to make sure that the way the data is transferred from the website to the membership team is secure. No financial data should be stored on the website.
  6.  Create the draft version of the web pages as soon as possible and get them sent to BACS for approval. Try to get the pages right first time, or they will need to be submitted again.
  7.  Carry out comprehensive user testing before going live. Make sure it works on all the main browsers and monitor is closely when it goes live.

John Smith has these tips following the TSSA’s experience with online joining:

 “Don’t underestimate the time it will take to get approval from BACS for the telephone sign up scripts and web site pages


 “Go through the Direct Debit Rules and Regulations carefully and make sure all the text on your join on line pages are compliant


 “We had problems arranging the SSL security with VeriSign because they seemed to struggle with the fact that as a trade union we weren’t registered at companies house” (Note, your website hosting company might be able to provide you this without the red tape and for a cheaper price)


Every time the Gen Sec asks you when members will be able to join on line, add a couple of months


Some unions will have had design consultants in to help them, and their join on line pages should have benefited from this advice. Try and join a few unions and copy what you like about their pages


Go live quietly without too much fan fare so you can sort out any glitches that may occur just after you go live.

If your union does already have an online joining system, take time to make sure it is secure and works with modern browsers. I came across more than one case where there were problems with the online encryption and a few online joining pages only worked properly on certain browsers.

Finally, as per my previous article, make sure the union website is search engine optimised so that prospective members can actually find the online joining page.

Kevin Walker     August 01

Wasn’t it about 2004/2005 when Connect and then you at Prospect launched the first complete joining system? Surprised that so many still haven’t cracked it.

Donnacha DeLong     August 03

The new NUJ website is currently in development with a full online joining system, plus proper “update your details” functionality for members. I’m working an independent consultant on the project and the providers are: Netxtra for the website and ThankQ for online joining (integrated with the existing ThankQ membership system). Go live date coming soon!

david blakemore     August 06

Given the increase in web access via a mobile device it is surprising how many web sites are not mobile friendly; bbc site is excellent. Would have been interesting to see how many web sites offer tailored web joining via a mobile device.

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