Somewhere in January solidarity stopped being a dirty word. Nothing like a jobs crisis to sober us up about what its going to take to survive work. The narratives about trade unions have for the last three decades have been predictable and patronising. In actual fact, literally millions of us who don’t drink beer or eat sandwiches are members of trade unions. Not wishing to get all macho on you but trade union continue to be the largest membership organisations in the world. Another actual fact.
As the free trade fairy stories start to stumble, its possible that we can start to tell another story about what its gong to take to develop a fair industrial strategy and address the systemic problems with the future of work. Seriously, since when have wages gone up without them?
These two blogs offer two different perspectives on the workings of trade unions. Neither authors are delusional or members of a cult but they do ask you to be open to the possibility that when it comes to solidarity, size matters.
After the Easter break, Surviving Work will be presenting the results of its national survey of working conditions in mental health and raise a debate about the future of work in the therapeutic sector.
The Changing Union Landscape
When we think about trade unions there are various images that come to mind. Normally these relate to forms of collective action and strikes, the late night negotiations with employers over pay increases, and the political role they play as in the current internal Labour Party debates.
Whilst things have changed, there are views which do not always capture the way trade unions evolve and engage. There are also absences in understanding the changing culture and social aspects of trade unions as spaces where individuals engage and mutually learn from experience and discussion.
That people’s lives are changed by such engagement and that, to varying degrees, trade unions are networks of individuals and groups linked to broader communities is rarely discussed. The fact that in addition to their formal, conference policies and actions they are cultural spaces is something that those not researching on and/or working with trade unions do not acknowledge or realise. Yet for many individuals the link to the union is much more of a lived and cultural experience.
As stated, there is much said about trade unions in terms of their relevance. Given the changes taking place in terms of the continuous nature of economic uncertainty (pre- and post-Brexit), the decline of stable work, the emergence of highly unstable and precarious forms of employment, and a greater degree of work intensification, we are being told by the media and the ‘policy community’ that trade unions are not suited, or are unable, to keep up with this moment of chaotic capitalism.
This is partly due to a model of trade unionism which, during the twentieth century, was leaning towards a more organised and coordinated relation with employers and the state at a time when economic structures and relations were clearer – to some extent. Planning and long-term negotiation – even in a more market and voluntarist model such as that of the UK – allowed for a greater political and regulatory influence from unions. Leading academic journals such as the British Journal of Industrial Relations or Work, Employment and Society, and the Industrial Relations Journal have been documenting the changes for some time. An entire generation of debate on questions of decline has emerged since the mid to late 1980s (perhaps before in some cases) and academic careers build around these themes and narratives.
However, the resilience of trade unions and their ability to respond to change has been equally noted not least through the work of labour and employment relations academics such as Carola Frege, Ed Heery, John Kelly, and Lowell Turner, amongst many who study questions of trade union revitalisation and renewal. Trade unions have begun steadily to look at new ways of championing the ‘outside’ worker – ‘self-employed’ taxi drivers, the unprotected/under-represented in the large population of cleaning workers and a range of new mega-warehouse workers lost in the satanic spaces of large retail and logistics corporations.
This is being undertaken through new forms of living wage campaigns, publicity campaigns focusing on the new forms of work exploitation, the use of local community-based strategies and alliances, and social media strategies that link and highlight struggles. Both the traditional and newer trade unions and trade union networks have responded through highly innovative strategies, perhaps to variable degrees. For example, community-oriented trade union strategies have been used to link to a broader coalition strategy with civil society groups as, for instance, pointed out by the work of Jane Holgate, Jo McBride or Jane Wills amongst others.
Whilst trade union strategies regarding less stable and ‘insider’ groups of workers have not always been consistent – as in the case of migrant workers and large groups of female workers – there have been shifts for some time in the general orientation of their organisational roles. There is a greater attempt in various cases to move beyond the workplace in terms of strategic focus and organisational structure – such as the location of union meetings or the use of meetings.
It is noticeable that trade unions can be important personal reference points rather than simply a buffer or defence – or legal ‘insurance scheme’, even – against the challenges of our ever-changing work and the behaviour of management. Trade unions do offer new roles, which is the subject of increasing study within labour and employment relations. For example, there is a wide engagement with trade unions as learning spaces that provide access to a range of supports, from technical skills through to social and personal development, although recent restrictions on state and public funding for some of this type of work has questioned the further development of this. Nevertheless, learning has continued to be a major means by which trade unions provide more supportive and innovative spaces for their members and workers. The work of Jason Heyes, Sian Moore and Mark Stuart in the UK, and others, has been central to these discussions.
The point is not about being an endless optimist, or someone who does not realise the political and personal tensions around these issues and within trade unions. Quite the contrary: these are all contested terrains and are subject to different approaches and trade union views. There are very real tensions in terms of internal organisational trade union changes and restructuring in many cases.
Yet, we find that many of the more innovative developments are not always acknowledged beyond the realm of the study of labour and employment relations. Trade unions remain misrepresented by the media and by various academics not involved in the study of work as employment. Within this, the notion of community is key – not solely as a strategy linked to social coalition building, but also as a new way of looking at social and personal supports and networks within work, and within and around organised labour.
Trade unions and broader sets of workers’ representation can be cultural spaces. The use of cinema, theatre and reflective discussion is important to the way debate and understanding can be developed, as in the National Union of Journalists’ use of a film season in Greater Manchester to enliven discussion and engagement across different sets of journalists and media workers.
We have witnessed the evolution of activist networks, such as Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, which have a considerable trade union input and configure strategies around culture and resistance, as well as using traditional campaigning techniques. The National Shop Stewards Network tries to connect worker representatives across and between workers and sectors so as to create general politics of personal resilience and collective learning.
These are all examples of networks of support and assistance using new lateral ways of creating dialogue. The importance of trade unions – for all their political differences and tensions – in creating spaces for personal support and dialogue between members and workers more generally, informally and through social spaces.
This role is one that is becoming increasingly important be it through trade union social strategies, organisational activities and moments of mobilisation. A politics of mutual support, friendship and understanding amongst workers can emerge and allow more informal dialogue to develop. This means that, within workplaces and in communities, trade union and worker collectivism as a social space are important for generating a genuine basis or dimension – perhaps not in isolation – for seeking new solidarities which are meaningful in how they change perspectives and lives. That suggests we need to broaden our view of how the ‘traditional’ forms of representation can sometimes renew themselves as spaces and experiences for genuine personal resistance, hope, and mutual support between workers.
The Psychodynamics of Solidarity
Despite women working in higher education still being paid 12 per cent less than men and half of all teaching staff on precarious contracts, last month 57 per cent of my union’s members voted against taking industrial action over decent pay in education. You don’t need to be an internationally recognised expert in industrial relations to do the solidaristic maths.
People, at what point did we trade in protection at work for the short lived comfort of protectionism?
Up until this result I had been entertaining the feeling that as I get older I get cooler. As a feminist trade unionist working in mental health I can clear a room, but these days the capacity to spot a fascistic future early enough to do something about it has high societal currency.
We have had a bad year for fairness and like most of you reading this blog, I’m sad, tired and angry. At one point in November I remember waking up thinking ‘my entire working life was a total waste of time’. I bought make-up to cover up my inability to regulate my emotions at work and I listen to Public Enemy, like a lot.
Although the dominant narrative about trade unions within liberal market economies is that they are outdated and defunct organisations, the current economic conditions mean they are the only show in town. Seriously, it’s hard not to laugh out loud at the prospect of a political class who have never worked for money defining an industrial policy without trade unions. With no actual government strategy and the disenfranchisement of the growing majority of low wage workers in the UK, who exactly do you think knows how to resolve this?
Apart from the fact that trade unions continue to be the largest workplace membership organisations in the world, it’s only when trade unions can operate that basic stuff like living wages and rights at work can be secured. Bluntly, the more trade union members there are the higher the union negotiating power, leading to higher wages and decent jobs. It’s just weird to suggest otherwise.
One of the problems of being a trade unionist – apart from victimisation and a downward pressure on your promotion prospects – is that you’re part of an imperfect system. In the fallout from Brexit, I spent a lot of time on anti-racism demonstrations and cringed at the absence of trade unions banners. Activists were there, our organisations not. Stunned that the race card had divided the workers yet again. Back to the 1970s, minus the great music.
When Stand Up to Racism happened and the real deal of local anti-racist activism in this country came up for air I was proud to see my union on the list of organisations that had sponsored the campaign. But I’ll admit that when my General Secretary stood up to make a speech I didn’t clap. Surly maybe, but it left me with a question about how it is that my own union couldn’t join the dots between fairness for migrants and fairness for the women and hourly paid workers in my union. How did equality get traded in so easily?
I’m going to get a bit Industrial Relations on you now. It’s what I do.
For several decades, there has been a general decline in traditionally strong trade union memberships across Europe. Since 2008 we have seen a decline in national level collective bargaining and large scale cuts in public sector jobs, renewed privatisation, and a massive growth in underemployment and temporary contracts. This has contributed to a decline in public sector union membership, the stronghold of trade unionism globally, and has put a downward pressure on union power in relation to wages and job security.
In the meantime precarious work has grown, faster than we could ever have imagined. In universities we now have 50 per cent of university lecturers on hourly paid contracts. Yup, 50 per cent of staff have no real protection at work. Almost funny for those of us teaching employment relations to the next generation of managers.
That’s not to say that all precarious workers don’t organise – many do and all over the world too. From the Colombian contract miners to the Deliveroo workers in the UK, push people far enough and they will organise. Sometimes established unions are part of these organising drives, sometimes not. Either way, the motivation to join a union that provides genuine protection is getting stronger.
The reasons that you may not get to hear about these sustained organising campaigns are multiple.
Firstly, the daily grind of organising workers in the current climate is literally exhausting. In my experience the people doing it are modest and brave and the last people on earth to tell you about the good work they are doing. Trade union organisers are the best kept secret of workplace survival in this country.
Secondly, the reasons why people associate with the people around them are not straight forward. Solidarity is a central organising principle for trade union activity, referring both to the principle of common action with others and to the identification of one’s own interests with theirs. Although some conceptions of solidarity presuppose a shared collective identity – such as class – increasingly the diversity of workforces and trends in labour migration cannot assume a homogeneity of identity. A solidaristic model of cooperation has historically been underpinned by class identification and a focus on collective interests, something that does not cut it if you’re asking an hourly paid lecturer to go out on strike over pensions.
Solidarity understood as an identification between homogenous groups of working people is increasingly not responsive to the diversity of working people’s lives and political positions. As a result, the issue that unions are constantly needing to address is how to build relationships between increasingly insecure and precarious working people sufficient to mobilise collective action.
Thirdly, there is an inherent tension between the two faces of trade unionism, the ‘sword of justice’ where unions defend the oppressed and underprivileged and a model of ‘vested interests’ where the focus is on defending particular interests of a smaller group of increasingly elite workers. As a result, the fundamental question for trade unions rests on how they can mobilise workers in defence of collective interests and values despite the splits between us.
The psychodynamics of trade unions are important here. Solidarity is often understood within unions as solidarity against a political or economic actor. For unions in hostile environments a common defensive position is to locate and project all problems in external actors, as a way of creating a cohesive group identification. Acts of solidarity carried out against an employer for example, can powerfully build what Turquet calls ‘oneness’, observable in groups of workersengaged in workplace organising. Them and Us.
Because of this, there is a strong potential for becoming ideologically defended, a defence of ‘being in the union’ that denies difference and relies on a group mentality that maintains a sense of belonging. This way of functioning tends to highlight intra-group conflict while underplaying inter-group conflict where the diversity of memberships and individual difference are denied.
The problem is that to really build solidarity we have to grow up and accept that unions are both including and excluding. To accept that we walk a thin line of being identified enough with some central principles to actually do something for each other but not so over-identified that we can’t stand the real diverse nature of working people.
These societal changes mean widening the organising model towards a relational model of solidarity where trade unions create spaces where working people can understand societal and industrial changes taking place, build dialogue and strong solidaristic relationships in situations of industrial conflict that can mobilise members to act over collective grievances and social justice in a context of diminishing resources.
There is a compelling regressive fantasy of ‘in or out’ that is settling in our unions that now needs to be challenged. Historically critical insiders, particularly labour academics, take a sustained beating for raising public debates about the future of unionism. This doesn’t help much, leaving the important and difficult conversations about the future of workplace organising to green room discussions by an increasingly limited gene pool of functionaries.
At the end of the Stand Up To Racism event a woman from Thanet stands up and says:
“I don’t need a lecture from you lot on the stage about neoliberalism – I need help and support to talk to the people I live with who are not actually racist, but voted to leave the union. This is a daily slog that I do because I can’t afford to move anywhere else. We’re stuck together and I need help making it as good a place as I can.”
To organise solidarity in the current climate means allowing people to be critical of what is going on in their union. If we are to live the grown up politics that are needed to really build solidarity at work we all just have to get stuck in and build our relationships at work. Join a union and battle it out with the people who are both in and out of that union. Without defending the principles of solidarity that underpin social justice, protection at work becomes just protectionism. It’s the principles, and we’re not stupid.
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