At the heart of the direct union, and in fact at the core of any union, is the conversation. In the same manner that the exchange of commodities is the foundation for a market economy, the conversation with and between workers is the foundation for any union. However, the grounding conversation in a representative union, whether it be between workers, union delegates or officials is simply this: “what can the Union do for us, and how can it do it better?” While, many representative unions have initiated great campaigns, or participated in large-scale struggles for new rights, the crux of the matter though, is that representative unions having been given legal recognition become (semi)privileged actors in the economic system that can deliver some limited outcomes for its members. This engenders an attitude amongst workers that the Union is an outside body that delivers for them, it’s an excellent recipe for passivity. Furthermore, the repetition of this conversation over time prepared the groundwork for the neo-liberal counter-reformation. With Unions being framed as an outside/external body (and often acting like one), the general crisis of the rising cost of labour could be repackaged as the Other (unions) threatening the prosperity of society in general. Therefore, if this outside body was disciplined, weakened and brought into line then everyone (including the workers who were being represented by these Unions) would be better off. It worked electorally. Even industrially, smart management in highly organised sectors could set about a 5-10 year plan of de-Unionisation by going direct to their workforce, buying off or otherwise sidelining local workplace representatives and offering better wage outcomes. With the organisation of their workforce smashed, over time they could bring down the wages and conditions to a more affordable level once again. The sad story of the deunionisation of the Pilbara region, in the north west of Australia, in the 1990s bears out this strategy.
The insurrectional union, on the other hand, has a very different sort of foundational conversation. The conversations between workers, shop-floor leaders, and organisers takes the form of “we are Union, and what are we going to do about it together?” There are a number of different names/frameworks for what are essentially the same action conversation whether it be Saul Alinsky’s “Anger, Hope, Action” framework or the old anarchist catch-cry, “Agitate! Educate! Organise!” (and that’s just for starters). The first phase of the conversation is to agitate/anger the worker about a particular issue they are experiencing. The second phase then moves to educating the worker about the power they can exercise collectively (whether it be in their specific workplace, their company, industry or class) – the idea being that the worker now has a realistic hope that they can actually win on their issue – enough of a hope to care again. The conversation then moves to the action/organise phase. The idea being that the worker will come away from the conversation committed to carrying out some sort of action – historically this has ranged from simply joining a union, asking a couple of workmates to come to a meeting through to participating in a general strike. The whole aim of the conversation though is to get working people actively grabbing hold of their own destiny and struggle.
Interestingly, since the neo-liberal counter-reformation the action conversation is gradually gaining ground in larger-scale representative unions. The fire of the neo-liberal industrial relations strategy is forging a new model of unionism, and the incorporeal part of the union structure, the conversation is the first part of the representative structure to change. It, therefore, should come as no surprise that the first systemic use of action conversations within a representative union structure came at the Ground Zero of neo-liberalism; 1980s California. The 1980s Justice for Janitors campaign in Los Angeles was all about getting workers active because the traditional representative mechanisms had so broken down for cleaners/janitors that the only rational option, over and above a distopia of forever falling wages and living standards, was action across an entire industry against those who really exercised power and shifted risk down to workers.
The action conversation, in the contemporary period in Australia at least, first started to filter through in the early 1990s as the crisis in representative unionism started to be felt institutionally with drops in membership numbers translating into a real operating and budgetary crisis for unions. It was here when the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) radically shifted its training priorities. The first Organising Works class started in 1994. New organisers would be trained in the action conversation (and other key elements of organising). Obviously the training up of a professional class of organisers will only ever have limited value as a measure on its own to build up worker power. One could even retort that it hasn’t made much of a difference over the last 18 years. I would argue, though, that it’s probably only recently and over the next 4-5 years that we will objectively see what sorts of ramifications this will have for the entire movement. Given the relatively small change of personnel and low-levels of turnover it’s really only been recently that those who directly participated in this revised training curriculum or were open to be influenced themselves have begun to obtain leadership positions within the wider union movement.
The action conversation has probably reached ideological supremacy within the Australian union movement, although its hegemony is by no means uncontested. And there is a real self-interest for unions as organisations as to why this has happened; when neo-liberalism cuts away at the foundation of representative functions it’s the strongest alternative the movement can turn to. Where we are today though, is by and large representative unions having more action conversations. The key will be turning to how these conversations can take place within a direct Union.
Usually, but not always, getting a worker to become a member is one of the first aims of the action conversation. In the next part I will deal with how membership in a direct union should structured.