Here’s one to watch. Down in New Zealand, a country with an unusually cohesive (though struggling) union movement, affiliates of the national union federation have launched an innovative thing called “Together“. We’re calling it a thing because it doesn’t really fit into any of the usual drawers. It’s not a union, not an NGO, not an organisation, not a network, not an association, club, sect, faction, fraction, tendency or movement. What it is, above all else, is a potential solution to several of the quandaries that unions have been trying to solve for at least 10 years.

In the NZ Council of Trade Union’s own words:

“Together aims to connect workers in un-unionised work places with the union movement and the union experience.”

In order to do this, it provides “…help with issues like workplace bullying, sick leave, holiday pay, employment agreements and sexual harassment”.

Together is a national service that is being developed for the “precariat” — that rapidly growing cohort of workers who do not fit into the standard labourist model of industrial capitalism. Because it is being developed at the national level, with affiliates’ buy-in, it cuts across regional, sectoral and strategic lines. In particular, it aims to bring together:

  • People on casual contracts;
  • Those in industries like IT, tourism or in small shops, or driving taxis;
  • Contractors and workers in remote areas and small towns who don’t currently have access to a union;
  • The families of current union members.

Membership costs just $NZ 1 per week, which is roughly 20% of typical union fees in New Zealand. (One kiwi dollar is equivalent to about $US0.87 or £UK0.53 or ¥68). Family membership is also on offer, bringing a still larger audience back into unionism’s traditional orbit. In fact, the word they use here is “whānau”, which is a Maori word suggesting something more like “extended family”. So, for instance, if mum or dad is a union member, they can also arrange union support for their children, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews and nieces and grandchildren.

As affiliated unions sign up to support and promote the system, they sign a “Memorandum of Commitment” (click to download). This is they key document to read, if you want to understand how Together works. Needless to say, there are all kinds of potential conflicts and pitfalls and fishhooks in a project like this. It is a credit to the kiwis that they’ve managed to negotiate such concerns and get Together off the ground. 

Will this be “the missing link “– a clear route between the precariat and the mainstream of the labour movement? If not, will it become the first step of something that evolves further? It is far too early to make any meaningful assessment of the project, but, as the great Anon once said:
“The best map in the world will not get you anywhere. Only going will get you there.”

A more detailed discussion paper on the project can be downloaded here.

The Memorandum of Commitment signed by affiliates is accessible here.

The Together website is here: http://www.together.org.nz/

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