The next of The Commune’s London reading group series is on the subject of “‘Schools for communism?’: workplace organising and theories of trade unionism”. We will be looking at different conceptions of how unions are formed, their role in the structures of capitalism and their limitations, and then studying more concretely various aspects of organising in the 21st century. A full agenda will be published shortly. This piece from Prol Position is on the reading list, and takes an interesting view of the current brand of organising initiatives.
Militant Research, self-interviews, workers’ centres, campaigning and organizing: currently there is a part of the left that gets enthused by ‘undogmatic approaches’ which tackle the question of resistance within waged work. Study trips to the US, visits at workers’ centres and at organizing campaigns all give the impression that these new instruments of union struggle will shake up the rusty white-dominated union landscape in Germany because the target of these initiatives are principally young immigrant workers, women and employees in the service sector. Is a completely new and different union in the making? Or, to put the question differently: does the crisis of the institution “union” open up spaces for new forms of organising? Does the union apparatus provide help for opening new doors or do lefty activists let themselves be instrumentalised in order to provide the institution with a new and up-to-date outfit?
The crisis of the industrial unions expresses itself in four main ways: shrinking membership; unions ‘down-sizing’ their own workforces; the collapse of the shop-steward structure in most areas; and the fact that trade union organisations relating to specific professions are on the upturn. All this results in the union becoming ‘disarmed’ and unable to put a halt to company closures, falling wages and increasing working hours – a vicious circle.
The crisis of the workers’ movement can be attributed to one main problem: the movement finds it hard to acknowledge the slow demise of the institutional mediation of the conflict between labour and capital and is failing to develop new, self-determined forms of resistance. Despite increasing resistance, time and again the unions manage to enforce their politics of ‘belt tightening’ and ‘save the production location’.
Some within the left see this as a chance to ‘democratize’ the unions and in order to do that they continuously attack the union leadership. Others are clueless and cease to go to the picket lines. Others see a new ‘openness’ within the unions towards ‘social movements’ and they participate in these various new organising experiments, either as volunteers in the campaigns initiated by the unions or as their paid employees. In the next section we discuss the latter group.
Weakness of the unions – Organizing as an answer
The union redefines its role. As an organisation unions stick to a sector-wide collective contract – a contract which is not ‘enforced’ against the employer’s will but which is meant to serve as a frame-work to centrally ‘re-balance’ the different employer’s interests. In short: the unions offer themselves as an instrument to enable the employers to handle the further fragmentation of the production structure with the least friction. In this process conflicts are necessary, but these conflicts are less and less fought out on the shop-floor level. Instead they are fought on the political stage. Which means that struggles are ‘simulated’ and mobilisations initiated in order to influence political decisions. Two of the most recent examples are the ‘strikes’ of the GVK-workers (health insurance), arranged in coordination with the bosses of health insurance companies, or the ‘strikes’ of port workers in 2005/06 against the EU service directive, which were coordinated with the employers as well.
In those cases where struggles are ‘really’ fought, the unions only mobilise for the mitigation of deteriorating conditions and wages. This is true in general for the whole of union activities. In spring 2006, during the strikes against work-time increases, the Verdi union (a services union) was rather open towards new forms of industrial action – but the content of the struggle was not to be questioned in any way. Afterwards, the frustration amongst workers who knowingly were sent into a struggle for the deterioration of their own conditions was accordingly high,
What is the meaning of ‘Organising’ and ‘Campaigning’?
Organising and Campaigning have been important elements of union activities in the US for a long time. These terms relate to two different strategies, which are often combined. Campaigning refers to centrally planned campaigns, e.g. against certain companies in order to enforce demands. These campaigns mainly focus on changing or reinforcing public opinion. They are meant to create pressure in those sectors where (allegedly) there is no possibility to enforce things on the shop-floor level alone. Verdi describes it this way:
“In a classical company-based industrial action nearly all activities – be it a strike, work to rule, complaint procedures, etc. – take place within the relation between employee and employer. But this is only one of several important business relations relevant for the employer. The relations to financial institutes, government and governmental administrations, suppliers, competitors, clients, mother-company and subsidiaries, civil society etc. are of the same importance for them. For employees and unions these relations offer opportunities for activities which can be effective, particularly with regards to multi-national companies”.
Campaigning examples are boycott calls and image or brand damaging media work for which allies are supposed to be won over. For example, letters are sent to clients pointing out the (bad) activities of the company of concern (the anti-sweatshop campaign for example). Or other organisations of ‘civil society’ are asked to join the campaign from their specific perspective, e.g. Greenpeace takes part in the union’s Lidl campaign (Lidl is a big supermarket chain) by publishing a survey on the contamination of Lidl food with pollutants.
Examples of union campaigns in Germany are the Lidl campaign (since 2005), the McDonald’s campaign aimed at the establishment of works councils (2004), the Citibank campaign against the out-sourcing of call centres (1998 to 2001) and the Schlecker campaign (drug store chain) against the violation of the collective contract and against harassment of employees (1994 to 1995).
Organising refers to the active recruitment of union members by professional recruiters. Given that the service sector is characterised by many small companies dispersed across a city or town, organizers either go to the work-places (e.g. the IG BAU organizers – construction workers union – go to the work sites, and those of Verdi in Hamburg go to the offices where the security guards in the city work) or to the worker’s respective communities (Ken Loach’s movie ‘Bread and Roses’ shows this type of organizing amongst cleaners in Los Angeles). The aim is then to convince people of the advantage of a union organisation, and to organise meetings or to direct social processes towards the establishment of structures of representation. The latter means that the organisers particularly look out for people who have a ‘natural’ social authority amongst their colleagues. These people are then meant to get specific union support in order to make them able to function as ‘multiplicators’ of the union. This is supposed to result in the newly built-up union structures being able to maintain themselves in the future.
In most cases organising and campaigning are carried out at the same time. The idea is that the union first undertakes research in order to find out which sectors or areas are of strategic importance, or in which of them contracts or conditions can be enforced. The centrally planned campaign is then put into action by the organisers. They explain the aims of the campaign at the various work sites and, if necessary, take the specific problems of the workers into account.
In this way the main issue is the professionalisation of union work; not only of the union administrative apparatus, as it happened with the ‘old unions’, but also professionalisation at the shop-floor level. In some bigger companies the shop-stewards might already have had certain privileges and the union engagement offered a possibility of career within the union apparatus. But essentially the position of power of the German unions was based on the activities of an ‘idealistic’ rank-and-file structure. Instead of ‘democratisation’, the organising concept leads to a further centralisation of decision-making. Before conflicts are actually instigated, the union assesses their chances of success. Organizing and campaigning does not aim at creating or fostering conflicts on the shop-floor, but draws its strength from the lobbying activities and its self-promotion in the media. In addition, Verdi has chosen a professional group for their show-piece organising project in the Hamburg security sector, namely the private security guards: night guards, doormen, etc… people who’s work is very isolated and is not directly important for any other work processes, but who are on standby for emergency situations and incidents. Fortunately for the campaign, they feel weak and on the base of this weakness a sympathy-campaign against ‘pittance wages’ and for ‘respect’ can be built. These workers are not the objects of public moral suspicion either, like, for example, the private security aboard the local trains is. Lobbying means that decision-makers like client companies or at least their works councils are strategically included in the campaign.
One of the most important features of the organising campaigns is the fact that they see and approach the reality of the shop-floor only from the perspective and interests of the union and its aims. This might sound paradoxical given that in their organising literature and material they put a lot of emphasis on ‘networking’ and ‘the reality of daily life’. Actually, the alliance with ‘civil society’ is only a means in order to strengthen their own role in the organisation of the ‘wage labour’ sector – as works councils or as partners of the collective contract. The concepts themselves do not touch upon the question of work hierarchies (or sectors in society in general), rather it fosters hierarchies: the ‘social hierarchy’ is confirmed when ‘existing authorities’ amongst workers are used for recruitment and given hierarchies are instrumentalised for their own aims, e.g. when branch managers are addressed as the main contact persons of the Lidl campaign or when politicians and clerics are asked for ‘sponsorship’.
Those situations where self-organisation is confronted with union organizing are revealing. One example is the movement of truck drivers in the docklands of Los Angeles. There, the union organisers did not get a foot in the door. The difference in tactics is indicative of the difference in characteristics of the two: while the ‘self-organised’ truck drivers developed tactics to put pressure on companies and bosses by going on short and selective strikes, the organising campaign of the Teamsters union was based solely on cooperation with the ‘sensible’ companies, meaning those companies who are willing to sign a contract with the Teamsters. Those struggles that are not integrated into the union framework, weakened the negotiation position of the union – if the union is not able to keep things calm then it is of no use to the company. The resulting fight against any forms of self-organisation by the union should put into question the optimistic view on the union organizing strategy as an instrument for the extension of social conflicts. An article published in ‘The Nation’ begins with a similar example of Silver Capital, a car parts supplier in Chicago.1 And the Forbes magazine for economics2 states: “Lean organizational structure: Unlike the AFL-CIO’s complex departmental and geographical structure, Change to Win is a simple, hierarchical organization. It focuses its work around campaigns, rather than internal departments. It is also developing Internet-based approaches to putting pressure on employers and the government. Outreach to employers: CTW is not led by labor militants. Although the unions engage in contentious organizing campaigns, CTW’s goal seems to be establishing partnerships with management”.
But still, the workers do want it that way…!
A reoccurring pattern in the presentation of organizing projects by the unions is the characterisation of the activists as a ‘blank slate’, on which the workers can project their needs. Interviewing workers in order to find out areas of conflict at work or their issues actually sounds promising. Too bad that the results only ever seem to confirm what the bosses of the Verdi leadership already knew beforehand. There seems to be no other aims than a minimum wage, working times of less than 300 hours per month and no other forms of organising than company-based structures of representation à la Verdi and no other forms of struggle than the public begging for ‘respect’.
On the side of the left activists, who let themselves be roped in by the unions, the fact is obviously underestimated that you are never a neutral ‘complaint box’, neither as a scientist or activist, nor as a work-mate. Despite all good intentions, if you address people as a representative of a union you will always only get to hear from people what, in their opinion, a union is able to do for them. Meaning that it is not possible to do something on behalf of an institution (and be paid for it), but to fill it with ‘your own ideas’. The short-comings (of the workers’ movement) cannot be mended or overcome from the outside. In order to help to overcome the old-fashioned and rigid union structures and to tackle the ‘whole range of problems and issues that is the precarious life’, it would be better if the activists would tune into the real conflicts of the workers – and these conflicts are not only fought with their boss, but also with their own representatives.
2 “Breakaway Union Pushes Organizing”, Forbes, 17th of April 2006, www.forbes.com/work/2006/04/17/afl-cio-unions-cx_0418oxford.html