We have reached a moment in the technological development of human society (where at least temporarily for the moment will pass rapidly) where we are limited not by our collective physical resources but by our collective imaginations. We will be judged as a generation, as a civilisation, on whether we have the collective capacity to think our way through the iron cage we have encased ourselves in. Because if we don’t, no other generation that follows us for thousands of years will have the same opportunity.
Those of us lucky enough to inhabit the top of the iron cage imagine it’s not in their interest to escape it. We cannot expect that some super-rich oligarch will absolve us of the responsibility to act. No, the question I’m posing is to the rest of us prisoners. What can we do? That we will need to act for ourselves is obvious. But what is the form of the ship we will use to navigate our way towards a society founded upon equality, solidarity, sustainability and true freedom? I want to sketch out the structure of such an organisation – a 21st century union of workers.
First, a disclaimer. The rest of this may read like an autopsy of a dead body because in a way it is. Unions are like sharks. When they stop moving they die. That’s because members acting together around issues is the lifeblood of the union movement. Existing rules and regulations are just designed to limit that so it doesn’t critically interfere with the employer community’s want to structure the workplace in such a manner that it produces a healthy profit. What I will be dealing with here is the organisational structure that members acting together around issues will be able to use.
Before I go into the details of the new structure a bit of context is necessary. We can divide each and every union in the 20th century into one of two types of structure: representative and insurrectional. A representative union is one where the officials of that union act as the advisers and representatives of the rank-and-file membership, through contract negotiations and other legal proceedings. This model has brought real benefits to generations of working people but it’s fundamentally limited in what it can achieve. Although we shouldn’t knock higher wages, a greater say in the workplace and progressive social policy. But this model of union is forever vulnerable and any gains it achieves are conditional and reversible. An insurrectional union is one that seeks to use the economic and physical power of the working class to transform the dominant mode of production. It’s horizons may be more vast but given the existential threat it poses to the dominant order it is subject to direct and violent repression. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is probably the most famous example of an insurrectional union (at least in Australia and the United States).
The history of the Union movement’s interaction with the State can be summed up by a carrot and stick two step in response to growing worker power. Insurrectional unions have been repressed, its leaders killed or jailed. Representative unions have been given conditional legal recognition that at least partially legitimises their role within wider economy. This conditional recognition has allowed representative unions to build up a significant pool of resources; financial resources, offices and staff (although still absolutely nothing compared to corporations). Representative unions require these resources in order to go about their daily functions, which despite conspiracies to the contrary involves officials with good values trying their hardest to improve things for their members. But these resources are also the Achilles’ Heel of the representative union – take it away and it ceases to function. It’s not really the laws that regulate industrial action themselves that are used to discipline representative unions – it’s the existential threat of having those resources taken away as a result of transgressing the State sanctioned limits of industrial action.
Representative unions, nonetheless, still proved to be so successful that the price of labour itself caused a systemic economic crisis in the 1970s/80s. It was then that the structural vulnerabilities and inherent limitations of representative unionism were exploited to full effect in order to restore profitability under the guise of neoliberal economic policy. It has had a devastating impact on representative unions in the developed world. This has in turn been overplayed into a crisis of unionism in general, which is pure crap. The idea of workers standing together is an idea. You cannot kill it. It doesn’t bleed. And this does not match with growing union power across the globe.
The cleansing fire of extreme neoliberal policy nonetheless is giving rise to a synthesis of the two competing models of unionism. I know this because the first tentative steps are starting to happen around this global movement. For want of a better term I’d call it direct unionism. It combines the transformative vision of an insurrectional union with the everyday foundations of a representative union. But unlike either it cannot be disciplined through the threat of its resources being appropriated or its leaders being killed and jailed. It can only be shut down through turning off the very flows which sustain capitalism itself – the flow of information and capital.
Part 2 will be coming soon