This is the final in our series on how global unions might be built. In it, the author argues for a rejuvenated form of solidarity built around occupation. Industrial unions began to replace guilds and friendly societies during the first wave of new unionism – starting towards the end of the 19th century. The labour movement may have lost something critical along the way. Look at the way we talk about work — people do jobs; but people are occupations. The author argues: “…we need to start from the principle that what we do and seek to do is more important than who we do it for.” As we have seen elsewhere in this series (see here, for instance) a revived focus on occupation could be constructed as an added dimension to existing union activity and structures — it need not require any major reconfiguration. The benefits to working people are obvious, as we have seen with professional associations and support networks. But a new approach based on occupational citizenship might also help us address some of the most pressing problems we face:

  • How do we organize and bargain across borders in an age of globalization?
  • How do we organize “the precariat” – that rapidly growing class of workers who come and go before unions can reach them?
  • How do we rebuilt solidarity and influence in an age where many unions are struggling just to sustain themselves?

Throughout history since ancient Babylon, people have struggled to put themselves in a position in which they can realise their potential and develop themselves by defining themselves by a craft or profession, giving themselves an occupation, with some status and pride.

For many hundreds of years, working life was defined and regulated largely by occupational guilds, each with its codes of ethics, standards of workmanship, paths of upward mobility, mechanisms for providing relief and protection for their members, mechanisms for disciplining or expelling members with due process, and badges and awards for exemplary achievements and service.

The guilds had their drawbacks and detractors; they tended towards rent-seeking and tended to resist change in favour of insiders. But they created and defended vital communities. In doing so, they provided the semblance of a subsidiary citizenship, with rights of membership that at times stood defiantly against a class-based state. It is no accident that at pivotal points in history it was from within the ranks of guilds that opposition to tyranny or regressive economic structures sprang. Kings, presidents, prime ministers all had to reckon with these centres of countervailing power, deeply embedded in society and capable of collective action and representation.

It was also no accident that in the course of the development of industrial capitalism, particularly during the 20th century, both employers and the new labour unions were keen to marginalise occupational guilds. The period of industrial citizenship in the middle decades of the 20th century had an agenda of “labour rights” built on dependent employees. The labour unions gave priority to employment security; the old craft guilds had given precedence to job security, to occupation rather than to labour status.

Almost unnoticed, the neo-liberal economic model that gained ascendancy in the 1980s included a frontal attack on the occupational guilds, dismantling systems of self-regulation and building a global system of licensing, predicated on the desire to maximise competition and competitiveness against any quest for social solidarity and community reproduction.

As a result, almost all occupations have come to mirror the global class fragmentation that has been a defining part of globalisation. Occupational communities have tended to fragment into an elite, a privileged salariat, a shrinking proletarianised core and a rapidly growing insecure precariat. Think of the educational or teaching community as an example. As the education system is commodified, so one sees a shrinking salariat ruled by financial dictates, and a growing precariat of stressed auxiliaries, adjunct lecturers and so on.

Sadly, trade unions have sometimes been complicit in this dismantling of occupational communities. This is symbolised by the continued exclusion of all occupational guild-type bodies from the ILO and its Governing Body. It is the unions who fought to keep them out, not employers, even though the latter may have been quite happy with the consequences. It was an historic error.

Be that as it may… today, all those who hold the values of work and collective social solidarity dear must rally to rebuild working life based on new forms of collective association and bargaining. One key principle to consider is collaborative bargaining, which could complement (not replace) traditional collective bargaining. That is, unions could create institutions and processes to enable us to be members of occupational communities capable of bargaining with other occupational communities and with the state at national and global levels. We need to reconceptualise collective representation for a globalised labour process in which flexible insecure labour relations are the norm.


For that to happen, we need to start from the principle that what we do and seek to do is more important than who we do it for. Both matter. We need to build a framework for forging occupational citizenship, that is, a rights-based system in which everybody can pursue their own sense of occupation with dignity. What this entails is a series of emancipatory changes, including a universal right to basic income security in which individuals can combine different forms of work and labour, including education, training and participating voluntarily in social, political and other civil society work.

As far as unions are concerned, perhaps the essence is that we could be moving towards a new synthesis of the guilds and labour unions. Guilds gave precedence to job security (a niche and path for occupational mobility) while labour unions gave precedence to employment security (fighting for stable full-time employment). When each was in ascendancy, employers actually wanted much the same. Until the late 19th century, employers and the state wanted assured quality of craft or professional work; the guilds provided a guarantee of that. In the 20th century, the modal capitalist firm wanted to stabilise the labour force and lower labour turnover. Today, most employers want a mix, with a growing desire for a precariatised labour force forged by a new system of directive and punitive regulations. But they also want a smaller, highly motivated, self-exploiting group of proficians and a salariat dedicated to a model of corporate citizenship.

This suggests the time may be ripe for the emergence of an occupation-based collective movement. For this, union and worker activists need to develop a vision and a strategy for overhauling old ideas of freedom of association, so as to make it much easier for workers who are not employees to join and remain full members of collective bodies of their choice (such as occupational networks hosted by unions). We need to develop a strategy for the full and equal representation of the precariat in the governance structures of all agencies of the state, particularly those dealing with regulations and with social protection. Where is the voice of these workers in agencies that make arbitrary sanctions against them, without due process being respected at all?

Recently, we have seen the development of a 29-Article Precariat Charter (see Nobody is likely to agree on all the items of such a Charter. Let debate begin. However, the essence of what is surely required is a strategy to revive associational freedom, for real freedom can only come from collective involvement and social bargaining. Freedom is meaningless and fraudulent if we are all left as vulnerable individuals in a commercialised world.

What we must do is escape from “labourism”. We must broaden our conception of work — which is far more than just employment — and recognise that all forms should be given the same rights. The jobs most of us have to do are not what we would like to do. We should not pretend or imagine that will change much – although we should always encourage improvements. However, unions are in a unique position to build mechanisms that would allow people to treat their jobs more instrumentally, as well as bargaining on a price that compensates. Above all, that leads to thinking of a strategy that properly commodifies labour (what we do for wages or earnings) and decommodifies labour power (ourselves). This suggestion is in no way utopian. In fact, this is the reality that most people outside of the labourist model are living today.