Almost Cool

Last week I went to Birmingham to speak to the Social Workers’ Union – a young and fast growing union of over 12500 members – about the methods of solidarity in what can safely be described as a context of a professional car-crash moment. As someone who used to clear rooms talking about trade unions and mental health, its a sign of the times that a discussion with social work activists about the methods of solidarity is actually cool.


There’s something about the social coalface nature of social work that means when you get enough of them in a room something radical is going to happen. The question that preoccupies most unions is how to maintain sufficiently strong levels of solidaristic ties between increasingly diverse and insecure groups of workers not just to recruit them but also to mobilise them to carry out collective actions that stand a chance of improving working conditions.   A sobering statistic to keep in the back of your mind is that 75% of social workers experience burnout during their careers. Seriously, its going to take more than a few mindfulness sessions to sort that one out. 


The basis of solidarity 

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. 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 or the pressure that they are under.


Although the working class has grown on a world scale, trade unions have always had to aggregate and prioritise a huge diversity of interests that exist within their memberships. Solidarity can be conceived in three senses: first, as a normative or moral principle that creates an obligation to support other workers and groups; second, as ‘enlightened self-interest’ motivated by the belief that an injury to one is an injury to all representing only a weak moral imperative. At national and international levels trade unions often move between these two different modalities although there is an increased emphasis on mutual and concrete benefits from solidarity within this period of economic globalisation and political conflict. 


A third idea of solidarity, taken from the work of  the labour academic Richard Hyman, is a model of ‘mutuality despite difference’. This formulation emphasises the fundamental need for solidarity in practice precisely because of the lack of cohesion between working people. It is a model that accepts as fundamental the difference and conflict between individuals and groups and an acknowledgement of the tendency for groups to exclude and retreat into black and white thinking and action. 


The notion of solidarity appealed to by unions is influenced by their institutional setting and organisational cultures – from the highly politicised trade unions of Latin America to the functionalist models of the former Soviet Union. As a result, national and international levels trade unions often move between ideological and more pragmatic and concrete formulations of why solidarity matters in order to mobilize members. 


A solidaristic model of cooperation has historically been underpinned by class identification and a focus on collective interests. For members of trade unions, this involves the commitment to support other members in response to conflicts with employers, a concrete task as well as a political one, but as the economic and political crisis deepens there is always a pressure to deliver concrete outputs. From climate change to the living wage, we want to see solidarity in action.  The biggest challenge to trade unions is to build engagement with members and more broadly across social movements to create a sufficiently powerful conception of common interest to motivate collective action.



Emancipatory methods

Since the 1970s trade unions have been using the methods of emancipatory education to organise workers. Millions of Euro are raised and spent annually to disseminate these education methods, principally because they work but also because they are cheap and can be done literally anywhere from a staff meeting to lunch in a canteen. 


Emancipatory education is essentially a problem posing education with the explicit aim of social change through creating both social and political capital in the workplace. Relationships really. These methods provide a consistent framework made up of three connected stages of learning; problem identification, getting information particularly identifying what resources are available and planning concrete next steps. Emancipatory education is underpinned by a number of principles, including confidentiality and solidarity, and activities aim to provide a safe space for expressing and processing diverse and often difficult workplace experiences. There is an inherently political aspect to emancipatory education methods because they open up debate and a political processes of consciousness raising and collective planning, which serve to identify and mobilise collective interests, the basis of in putting solidarity into action. 


Trade union education is not a straight forward process because adult education by its nature can raise difficult emotions for participants in the process of identifying problems, looking realistically at our working lives and engaging in collective action. The process inevitably involves acknowledging our dependency on others and being able to challenge often strongly held ideological views and positions about society and our place in it.


This model allows a deeper and broader exchange between activists and can be understood as a ‘relational process’ , one which allows us to build relationships with others in a way that acknowledges our separateness and differences while at the same time accepting our ultimate dependency on each other.


Emancipatory education is a powerful tool in ‘political subject-making’ where, instead of swotting up on SWP pamphlets alone in our bedroom (surely, not just me?) our political identifications are formed through a process of identification and taking in of the experiences and views of the people around us. Yup, actually talking to other people who are not the same as us.


Working in small groups, both exposes differences and lack of ‘oneness’ in groups while at the same time makes it possible to build strong emotional ties sufficient to build a sense of altruism and reinforce an understanding of the importance of collectivism. It makes it pretty clear that if we’re going to do anything about working conditions, we’re not going to manage it on our own. 



Future solidarities

This relational model of unionism emphasises the capacity for mobilisation, defined as a way of turning association (numbers of people forming a collectivity) into organisation (capacity for collective action). 


It is a relational model of organising 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. These societal changes mean widening the organising model from a simple one of recruiting union members as the sole basis for union revitalisation towards an expanded model of building relationships with existing and often spontaneously organised groups of working people. 


In this context, the political work of trade unions has to be built – not as an ideological project but rather as a developmental one. The central argument is that the primary value of trade unions is that they are able to create spaces for dialogue between diverse interests and provide a safe environment out of which new political ideas can grow.


In the current climate there is a seduction to the idea that even if we’re the underdogs we’re the underdogs together but the reality is that solidarity doesn’t come naturally to any of us in a situation of scarce resources. Easier to blame, split and go tribal. What always gets under articulated in the party conference season is the quiet steady developmental work that many of us do to build solidarity at work. 


If the experience of union organising teaches us anything about surviving work its that we can’t delegate building our relationships with other people or with ourselves. Solidarity is less an ideological construct and more an everyday practice. Solidarity is not a union of like minded folk who would never hurt each other. Solidarity as an ideal exists precisely because we are all capable of acting defensively and against our own human interests. 


In a context of a sustained attack on our work and conditions, if there is a fight to be had it is a psychological one. To continue to take the risk of practicing solidarity by making contact with other people who are not the same as us.


To read the full published article: Constructing Solidarities at Work: Relationality and the methods of emancipatory education go here    

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