organizing


wdMembers of this network have been arguing that the union movement needs to become more involved in organizing for workplace democracy. Study after study, survey after survey, have shown that workers in post-industrial nations want more direct voice and influence in the workplace. However, by and large their aspirations are represented by a movement whose bargaining agenda has remained the same for decades.

Union organizers will be familiar with the tensions that result from this. What do you do when the members’ main concern seems to be about the boss making stupid decisions? Or the KPIs being out-of-synch with reality? Or a culture of nepotism generating widespread depression? Or a flash new I.T. system screwing up everybody’s workflow? How does all this fit into a program of achievable gains? Few workers will mention the word “democracy” during such conversations, but what they are wanting is to be heard. And they do not want to be sub-divided or co-opted in the process. This is clearly a role for unions, whether they decide to accept it or not. It is also a huge opportunity for recruitment. Think about all those employees who don’t join because they have it in their head that unionism is just about pay and conditions. (more…)

Why do we defer from 9 to 5? The “master-servant relationship” is a feudal phantom that still haunts today’s workplaces, thanks to English common law. Peter Hall-Jones argues that it’s time to exorcise the old ghoul. The workplace democracy movement aims to do just that, but where do unions fit in? The way they respond to this agenda might well determine their relevance in the workplace of the future.

O2Great_Chain_of_BeingNCE upon a time there was a great chain of being. Up the top was God; down at the bottom were all the inanimate objects[1]. Actually, somewhere beneath all this, below the rocks and lost socks and broken toasters in a kind of hidden underground lair, were the Devil and his minions. As for you and I, we were stationed at different points along the way depending upon our status. Kings were below angels; vassals below lords; apprentices below craftsmen; and wives below husbands. And there wasn’t much point in grizzling about it; all this was divinely ordained so we just had to lump it.

What we now call ‘English common law’ developed out of this medieval compost. Over the centuries, hallowed principles were codified into exacting social rules. Detailed treatises and regulations were drawn up to determine how people on different levels should relate to each other. Some of the central planks that emerged from this work of ages were the parent-child relationship, the husband-wife relationship, the guardian-ward relationship, and (our subject here) the master-servant relationship.

All of this ought to be the stuff of historical footnotes. However, English common law still underpins the legal systems in a large number of countries. The list includes the United States, the United Kingdom, India, Canada, South Africa, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Brunei, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and New Zealand. To make matters worse, through the process we now call colonialism, several of these feudal relationships leached across cultures and have become a kind of ‘default setting’. In particular, the master-servant relationship sets the general tenor for industrial relations worldwide. Trade arrangements reinforce it further, and it has been quietly hard-wired into international labour law. Perhaps we no longer hold cherubim below seraphim, beetles below ladybirds, or yew trees below olive trees, but our life at work is still very much configured around this medieval template. (more…)

1The usual story begins sometime in the late ’70s. Cue violins. “The rise of neoliberalism — as personified by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher — signalled the beginning of the end for trade unionism. Since then, unions have experienced rapid and relentless decline…”  Right?  As a despairing friend put it, a while back: “Unions have spent the last forty years trying to turn a rout into a retreat”.

The trouble with this dominant narrative is that, according to the best data we have available, it is wrong. For most countries, at least. In this paper Peter Hall-Jones looks at how our perspective has been skewed by the experience of a relatively small number of post-industrial nations. The real story is far more interesting. It also suggests a positive way forward. Rather than running trade unions as ailing small businesses, we should be building cooperation along supply chains. (more…)

guild2

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?

(more…)

FWUMThis article proposes the creation of a new international sustainability standard certifying that wages and working conditions are set through ongoing processes of good faith collective bargaining. Businesses and unions that comply with the standard will be entitled to apply the ‘Fair Work: Union Made’ label to their products and services. The authors argue that while such a voluntary standard cannot substitute for robust collective and individual labour law, it is likely to be an effective means of promoting collective industrial relations.

If you are interested in being part of a small team to take this idea further, please contact communications@newunionism.net. (more…)

GLI
Speaking to Greek activists and unionists in 2013, network member Dan Gallin* presented an overview of the progress (and otherwise!) of the labour movement in the 20th century. While there is much we can learn from the past, there is also much we must leave behind. Dan has been a union leader most of his life, and he has seen the union movement at its best and its worst. Yes, capitalism is in crisis: austerity is their solution. However, the labour movement is also in crisis. Our solution must be both revolutionary and democratic. Dan is working with a growing cohort of like-minded activists to repoliticise the labour movement. (more…)


DAWPerhaps the left is not as divided as the right would have us believe.

Back in 2011 we looked at four alternatives to capitalism that had been proposed since 2000 (see http://goo.gl/GB7Qs). All of the models had one thing in common: they all called for the democratization of work. In 2008 this became one of New Unionism’s four key principles (more). Of course, the Bolivarians have been saying this for years (recently here). And Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky have since joined the chorus (here and here). Now there’s a major new voice provides a thumping bass: Richard Wolff’s “Workplace Democracy: A Cure for Capitalism” (Haymarket 2013).

In many ways, Wolff’s book is the one to start with. You might then go on to read about socialist markets, participatory economics or occupational citizenship (a la Schweickart, Albert and Standing respectively), but at least you’d have done the big-picture thinking first.

Let me try to provide an overview in one paragraph, for those who can’t afford $15 +p&p (order here).  Apologies to Prof Wolff for what follows — one must murder in order to dissect. Eighteenth century revolutions in France and the USA delivered people from monarchy and ushered in a new age of democracy. Or so the dominant narrative would have us believe. In reality, democracy was never extended into the field of economics. Rather, the revolutions delivered control of production and distribution into the hands of the emerging capitalist class. Something similar happened with the Russian revolution, although it was the State and the Party that ended up with control of economics. Wolff argues that the people who produce the goods (or services) should be the same folks who decide on what to do with the value they create. He explains his rationale quite logically (there is no trace of table-thumping in this book), and puts up a pretty convincing case for the view that this would change dynamics right at the base of society. Workplace democracy may not be a solution to the cycle of crises in itelf, but at long last it allows for solutions to emerge. Hell, we might even survive as a species. (more…)

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