If you’re like me the stinking mess wafting up from the HSU East Branch makes you want to vomit. What pains me most is the gap between the reality of that Branch and what it could be. Their membership base is a range of allied health professionals and blue collar workers in the wider sector, i.e. a membership base intrinsically working around a key anchor institution in our society that cannot be either outsourced or shut down; hospitals. This should be a fighting union that wages huge campaigns and inspires other workers around Australia. But then again the strategic nature of the membership in building genuine people power in this country combined with what immediate difficulties that might cause for State (read Labor) governments probably provides a potent push for an (un)representative swill to take over to keep things ticking along (so to speak). The whole putrid affair shows up the mortality and limitations of the representative Union. The tale of the credit card and the prostitutes provides the media fodder but the wider story really is what appears to be the systemic fraud and large salaries of a few key operators combined with the lack of meaningful results/power that the membership exercised.
In this post I had intended to deal with some more technical aspects of how membership should work in a direct Union but the real world interrupted, so suck it. It’s forced me to cut to the chase more immediately and then tidy up the details later. The ever challenging Piping Shrike has written an insightful post in the last few days picking up on a ‘democratising’ debate going on within the Labor Party – a meme Kathy Jackson has picked up on. It’s one of those things that sounds nice but is really about providing an alternative basis on which a small elite can maintain control in a period of crisis – changing the way in which the legitimacy for representation is gained.
The direct Union, on the other hand, is about the membership as a collective having direct control over their own Union. A union is about workers coming together to exercise direct power in their workplace, industries and communities. It should be readily apparent that this is in no way possible without workers also being able to have direct control over the vehicle which is supposed to win them these victories. But this statement is a piece of glib obviousness compared with the hard work implementing this in reality – and it cannot be founded on a romanticised or idealised view of workers as the ideal other which will come to the rescue of a flawed society. It must be based on a recognition that there is no such as an inherent human nature – and that the actions and attitudes we see of people is at least partly a product of the structures we put in place.
Generally, in Australia today, unions have a representative structure. The membership is represented by a layer of elected officials (a mixture of full-time officials and those who remain on the job). It is these officials who are by and large left to determine and implement the administrative, industrial and political strategies of the union – if either the members are deeply unsatisfied with the results of these elected representatives, or the representatives themselves become divided, or they anger well-resourced outsiders (or usually a combination of all three factors), then there might be a challenge.
A direct Union would probably still require a layer of dedicated officials to assist in both researching, proposing and implementing the administrative, industrial and political strategies of the union. However, it would be the membership that would also have the power to propose and determine these strategies and policies. This would have to come through a mixture of face-to-face meetings/general assemblies, online participation and (sometimes) votes of the entire membership. Probably the most important piece of infrastructure for the direct Union is a full on web 3.0 site, a space that would allow geographically disparate but industrially connected members to deliberate together – there’s also a whole host of other functions that such a website would need to fulfill and given its importance this topic will be given its own space later. On such a website though, in a members only section of course, all of the Union’s administrative policies (including salary levels, membership contributions and credit card policies among other important topics) would be posted for free comment and suggested editing.
This could be supplemented by an annual general assembly for the union that is open to every single financial member – a hybrid physical and online meeting – occurring with booked meeting/conference facilities in each major metropolitan region as well as allowing members who may be unable to attend a chance to voice their opinions online. These meetings would vote on the Union’s budget for the coming year, decide the Union’s political strategy for that given year, and endorse/review the progress of significant campaigns. Such a general assembly to be a meaningful event though, would have to be a culmination of a series of informal meetings/committees and online forums open to all members to put in the significant amount of work for members to then make an informed decision. Think of it as a synthesis of structure and the democratic energy of the occupy movement.
There would still be leaders in such a structure but the basis for their power would be different – it would come less from ‘having the numbers’ and therefore controlling key offices – but rather being allied with and harnessing creative thinkers to drive progressive change, being persuasive enough to shift people, and doing the hard work of organising members. Having a structure to reward these character traits would not only be good for the movement but also good for the country. As an aside, I think we’re seeing a trend where personal authority and personal influence are becoming more and more mutually incompatible. I’m not sure whether it’s because (at least on a global scale) we’re going through a period of crisis, or whether there are other underlying technological or developing cultural reasons at play. So I can’t be sure how long or for how far this trend will shift, my instinct tells it’s certainly reversible and contingent.
This of course, all sets up an interesting paradox. What if the membership collectively and directly decides against any of the other structural changes I would propose as part of building a powerful direct Union? Well, shit happens.