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The future of trade unions

Unless democracy is reinstated as the movement’s guiding principle, organized labor will fail in any form.

Fight for 15 PA, SEIU 32BJ, and other unions representing fast food workers, home care workers, airport and retail workers rallied and marched around a South Philly McDonald's on Labor Day, 2017. Credit: Flickr/Joe Piette. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

British and American unions live in contradictory times. Scarred by 40 years of demoralisation and decline and with a tumbling membership, stringent legal restrictions on their work and fading political influence, they may also now stand on the cusp of a revival.

A wave of recent battles on both sides of the Atlantic, notably the ongoing teachers’ strikes in the US and an unprecedented 14-day strike by British university staff, might anticipate a coming upsurge in trade union action. Smug corporate types like to dismiss unions as industrial dinosaurs, killing time as they wait for the comet to land and finally bring about their extinction. We might yet get to see the smirks wiped from their faces.

The sharpest edge of this contradiction involves workers at the bottom of the occupational pyramid: the least-skilled, lowest-paid, largely female, migrant and non-white precarious layer of the workforce who British and American unions have historically struggled to organize. In the past several decades they have seldom tried.

The failure of unions to organize precarious workers has gone hand in hand with a failure of internal democracy. Falling membership in the past 40 years stems in part from union leaders not doing enough to draw on the talents and abilities of their members. An active membership, with real space to debate and change what their union does, is essential if unions are to organise precarious workers and bring about their own revival.

Different traditions within the British and American unions have addressed these questions in their own distinct ways. Each has their own take on what unions should and shouldn’t do, and each has their own approach to organizing precarious workers and fostering democracy within the labor movement. As unions teeter between revival and further decline, it’s worth thinking about what these traditions are, where they come from, and which we should support in the years ahead.   

The first of these traditions is craft unionism. It was strongest in the unions of the British Trades Union Congress and the American Federation of Labor during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and represented the most skilled, privileged and powerful minority of the labour force. More interested in making improvements within existing social arrangements than in transforming them, their bargaining power rested not on numbers but on the fact that the members of craft unions were, thanks to their long apprenticeships and training, not easily replaceable.

They were often contemptuous—and sometimes even fearful—of the great mass of workers below them, whom they saw as prone to outbreaks of self-defeating militancy which would jeopardise the gains that ‘respectable’ unions made through negotiation. In general, the craft unions ignored such workers whenever possible.

The second, more inclusive tradition is industrial unionism, which found adherents on both sides of the Atlantic in the rise of the mass production industries during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Industrial unionists saw a greater role for unions in the fight for social change. This meant conceiving unions not as a minority of skilled workers but as mass organisations that could mobilise workers in each industry from top to bottom.

In the US the Knights of Labor, the Industrial Workers of the World and the mass production unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations all succeeded to some extent in building a mass movement. The ‘new’ and general unions in the United Kingdom such as the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers Union and the National Union of Gasworkers and General Labourers did likewise. Not coincidentally, they organised precarious workers (especially women and non-white workers) in far greater numbers than craft unions ever did.

The third tradition falls somewhere between unionism and charity. What might be called ‘philanthropic’ unions do not rest, as craft and industrial unions do, on the bargaining power, numbers and militancy of their members. They depend instead on middle- or upper-class support to promote organisation among this or that group of highly exploited workers who, such supporters feel, don’t have the time or the strength to organise on their own.

Some of the first major steps in the promotion of women workers’ unions took this form. In 1874, for example, Emma Paterson and a number of other female workers set up the Women’s Provident and Protective League, an organization designed to encourage the creation of womens’ unions. The League survived for several decades on subscriptions from prominent ladies with aristocratic titles. As a result, it was more likely to call for collaboration with sympathetic employers than struggle against those who were unsympathetic.

These three traditions all still exist today, and their future development will determine the destiny of British and American unions in the years to come.

The craft unions of the nineteenth century may be long gone, but the spirit of craft unionism remains. The horizons of many union leaders have narrowed during the past forty years of retreat even as their strategy to retain existing members—the so-called “service model” based on the provision of fringe benefits more than on demands at the workplace—has failed. Their record in organizing precarious workers, especially in rapidly-growing service industries, has been even worse. Money that could have been spent organising has flowed instead to the Democratic and Labour Parties in the hope that a legislative fix could halt these unions’ long-term decline. They still await political deliverance.

In other cases, the philanthropic idea holds sway. In the US for example, the Domestic Workers Alliance works with and on behalf of one such group: the people who work in other people’s homes, often the homes of the rich. The Alliance has won badly-needed improvements for domestic workers at a state level in California and elsewhere, working with an employers’ organization called Hand in Hand to promote good practice across the industry.

Yet the funds that make the Alliance possible depend on the goodwill of well-meaning liberal donors, who might not prove so generous if domestic workers choose more militant forms of protest. There are also signs that the Alliance has prioritised legislative solutions over the organising of domestic workers themselves, and some organizations affiliated with the Alliance, such as Domestic Workers United, have called for a different, more worker-led model of organization.

The same philanthropic model guides living wage campaigns at UK universities today. Academics, students and union officials have pressured university managers to boost pay for low-wage workers on campus, using tactics from media campaigns to artistic interventions that have often proved effective. As with the Domestic Workers Alliance, however, they tend to work over the heads of the workers who stand to benefit from the campaign, and who must defend those gains from future attacks by university management. Unless that changes so that member-led democracy replaces charity as the guiding principle of the movement, these campaigns and alliances will fail in the longer term.

If craft unionism is a dead end and philanthropic unions suffer from a deficit of democracy, then what of industrial unionism? The broad, radical thrust of that tradition has not energised the mainstream of the unions for some time, but its spirit still lives on.

To take one example, the Fight for $15 campaign has brought thousands of fast-food workers, service and domestic workers traditionally considered beyond the reach of the American labor movement into the union fold. Its legislative victories in city after city from New York to Seattle prove to previously passive workers that strikes and mobilisations can work. If Fight for $15 can join with other radical movements with a strong working-class flavour such as Black Lives Matter, undocumented migrants’ campaigns, the new fighting feminism and ongoing struggles for LGBTQ rights, it could go from strength to strength.

The same spirit animates a growing number of trade unionists in Britain. The Bakers’ Union, for example, has followed the American lead and organized the first strikes at British branches of McDonald’s in 2017 and 2018. Best of all, new unions have taken up the task of organizing precarious workers where the existing ones have failed.

The Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) and the United Voices of the World (UVW) draw on the legacy of the ‘Wobblies,’ the Industrial Workers of the World. Working with food delivery workers at Deliveroo and migrant cleaners and service workers at several London universities, they rely on direct action by an active and engaged membership to force concessions from employers. To promote unity between Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members they began English-Spanish language exchanges. And they have strengthened the skills, capacities and militancy of their members on the picket lines and in the wider community.

At institutions from the School of Oriental and African Studies to the London School of Economics, they have waged successful strikes to secure better sick pay and holiday pay, and to end the outsourcing of their jobs. In April 2018 their struggle against outsourcing moved to cleaners, security guards and other workers employed by agencies for the central administration of the University of London. Their struggles have set an example for other trade unionists to follow.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that we should abandon established unions and create whole new ones. It does involve a fight for the real control of those unions by their members—a struggle as old as the labour movement itself.

These fights go on. The President of the Teamsters, James P. Hoffa, son of the infamous Jimmy Hoffa—a  name associated with the corrupt unionism of The Godfather and On the Waterfront—was nearly unseated as President in late 2016 by a grassroots coalition called Teamsters for a Democratic Union. A 14-day strike in February and March 2018 has transformed my own union, the University and College Union (UCU), whose national leadership faced harsh criticism for its apparent willingness to end the strike on any conceivable terms. UCU leaders can now no longer rely on a rubber stamp from an inert membership, and the possibilities for a campaign by and for casual academic workers have never been greater.

The exact form that unions take as organizations is less important than the spirit that guides them. Craft unionism means further decline and irrelevance. Philanthropic unionism means eternal dependence on fickle liberals. Inclusive, industrial unionism remains the only tradition with real democratic potential. It alone has the wide vision needed to organise the millions of precarious workers alongside those with greater leverage and bargaining power.

Whether or not that tradition is expressed through new unions or old, the example set by the IWGB, the Fight for $15 and other grassroots movements is the one we should follow if we want to restore dignity to the most exploited and fight most effectively for real social change.

About the author

Steven Parfitt is a University and College Union member and Teaching Fellow at Loughborough University, and has written extensively on British and American social history, including a recent book, Knights Across the Atlantic: The Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland, published with Liverpool University Press. He has also written for Jacobin, Labor Notes, OpenDemocracy UK, TheConversation.com and In These Times.


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