UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Ideology - an essential component of union growth strategies

This year we had the welcome news that unions are growing again in the UK. Despite having been subject to austerity, some of the most draconian anti trade union laws in the world, privatisation and decreasing wage levels, unions are stirring.
  Yet in the closed world of union organising the most advocated model of such campaigns is the US inspired version, promoted by a number of unions and even provoking a 2005 split in the AFL/CIO resulting in the `Change to Win` alliance led by the SEIU. The split is healing and the AFL/CIO remains the main union coalition in the US.

It recently welcomed back the UFCW, the food and commercial workers union, which has been bravely leading the fight against WalMart around the world. But latest figures show a continuing fall in union density in the US. Eric Lui in Time Ideas reports on the fact that it has hit a 97 year low, at 11.3%, and a mere 6% in the private sector:

He goes on to point out that most US workers probably yawned at the news but gives two reasons why they should be worried. The reasons are sound and not at all controversial. But they focus on the advantages to workers of a good economy. So what is happening in the US union homes of organising?

It is clear that there is no common consensus amongst US unions that resource dedicated organizing is the way ahead. Hence the previous split from the AFL/CIO. But the biggest US union has set itself apart from other unions by the extent to which it has pursued organising strategies. SEIU has demonstrated a determination to change and reorganise itself to become an organising union and has promoted the high profile organising strategies that are discussed all over the world. So why the continued decline? Why no successful rebuilding?

The problem may be political. Organising is primarily based - if done well - on empowering workers at work and in their union. Time and effort is invested in mentoring and promoting individual worker leaders who will sustain the union in the workplace and maintain the hard fought for union power.

The extension of that has been what to do with the power? Improve terms and conditions, win higher wages and lift workers out of poverty we will all answer. But invariably these things cannot be won out of context, and at the moment that context is austerity, increasingly powerful anti union employers and governments and a framework of social partnership that is collapsing. Employers don`t want or need union partners. They want slave wage conditions, zero hours contracts, temporary workforces and a flattened union movement.

In the UK union campaigns have become sharper, What that often means is they have become more political. Unite has found itself involved in political rows about the Labour party. UNISON campaigns have focused on the future of the NHS and schools. The UK unions are no longer organising to win partnership - they are attempting to organise resistance.

PCS is vocal about the political questions of privatisation and corruption in outsourcing. These unions attack G4S, Serco and the others. Its too early to say if that is behind the signs of growth but it seems the core message has a different final paragraph to the US message.

Part of the context in the US is characterised by the failure of Obama. He has failed to offer the unions any meaningful assistance but the union response to this has been almost absent. Unions seem afraid to attack him. The Health Care reform ruled out the public option, union rights are being shattered by State Governments. Our core message has to address social injustice and the failure of market economies, not just this time but constantly.

The US unions have taught us a lot about the mechanics of organising. Maybe its time for them to develop a better narrative about why things have gone wrong. Empowering workers is not just about what kind of union work they do. It's about looking for answers to very difficult questions, it's about explaining the context, in short it becomes a question of ideology. Empowered workers in the US with an anti capitalist ideology - what would that do for the global labour movement?