An Indestructible Union (Part 6)

Membership in a representative Union structure is really a dichotomy. Either you are a Union member or you are not a Union member. If it’s a recognised Union site then chances are you are probably a member, if it’s not a recognised Union site then you are probably not a member. And to be a member you must be paying your Union contributions. In contrast, direct Unionism abolishes the member/non-member dichotomy and replaces it with a continuum, and it does this by breaking the nexus between membership and paying contributions.

The separation of membership and contributions is really the structural means by which capital’s two key strategies for reducing worker power (over and above a direct assault on Unions) are transformed into trends which build levels of worker organisation. As I’ve outlined in earlier posts in this series, two developments in the industrial sphere have translated into a general hacking away at the membership of representative Unions; first is the decentralisation of bargaining away from an industry level to individual work sites, and second, is the growing rate of turnover with the rise of insecure work (especially for new entrants to the workforce). This has led to a situation where by and large (in the private sector), union membership is restricted to islands of key sites within some companies in the economy, and that within these islands membership is further (and sometimes deliberately) restricted to a core of permanent longer serving workers. The periphery of insecure workers are then largely ignored.

The membership continuum, however, can turn this into a trend that works for building worker power. First a disclaimer, as I’ve written repeatedly, all of these structural changes are dependent on active union campaigns. Otherwise, it’s akin to describing a powerful human body without a heart. It might look good but it’s not going to go anywhere. Supplementary to these membership changes though is an environment where unions are actively campaigning for insecure workers in a way that brings the core workforce together. Unlike Guy Standing who sees very little prospect for solidarity between secure and insecure workers, I think capital’s insatiable desire for more and more profit as quickly as possible will see it forcing more and more workers in the core to the periphery of the workforce. This leaves those remaining in the core working under the ever present threat of being made redundant or outsourced. This may work for employers in terms of day to day control of their workforce, but it’s also fertile organising territory.  Australian unions have made a respectable start at starting campaigns that create this necessary context (see here and here).  So, issues of context aside, a membership continuum turns the islands of unionism into pockets of dandelions in a field. As workers come through these sites and inevitably leave them they can float onto new fields as union members. It achieves this through a number of intersecting means.

The seeds of direct Unionism spread through the economy

First, direct Union membership is not continuously mediated by an employer through payroll deductions. Instead, when a member joins a direct Union they do so directly – membership contributions are paid directly to the Union either via electronic fund transfers or credit cards. Whatever the means any individual’s union membership is not dependent on ongoing employer cooperation. If this membership method were applied across the Australian union movement today, it would open up at least the structural possibility that hundreds of thousands of unionists each year could retain their memberships in non-union or anti-union workplaces. A structural possibility is, however, a long way from a structural imperative to retain union membership.

Second, workers leaving a workplace face a very real prospect of unemployment or underemployment. While many insecure workers within the islands of unionised workplaces face the real and ongoing prospect of underemployment. Removing the nexus between membership and contributions allows for the periodic suspension of contributions while retaining one’s underlying union membership. For example, it might be the case that a worker will not be getting a shift during the annual office shutdown – once this would have been enough to cancel a union membership.

At this point, you might be thinking that all I’ve done is collected a bunch of things that are already happening within many unions and turned them into a recipe for draining the union movement of key financial resources. If this was all there was you’d be right as I haven’t outlined any significant points on the spectrum as yet but briefly outlined the technical means by which a worker could move between through the spectrum and retain membership. And there is a very real tension that needs to be teased out here between underlying union values of equality and democracy combined with increasing involvement on the spectrum leading to more involvement and more rights. On this point, I don’t have all the answers but I know I don’t have all the answers.

A table of the direct Unionism continuum:

Union involvement Contribution level Membership Rights Potential Services
Not a member None None None
Campaign subscriber None Limited use of union websiteSubscribed to email list

Participate in campaign activities

Limited use of union website
Community member (sympathetic activists, unemployed workers, retired members) Minimal (50 cents/week etc) More extended use of union websiteAccess union training courses

Voting rights on union political/social/economic policies and strategies

More extended use of union websiteAccess union training courses

Access to union’s information on employment opportunities in area of coverage

Assistance building resumes

Minority member (workers not covered by a Union agreement) Relatively minimal ($1-3/week) Full voting rights on elected officials/participation in annual General AssemblySome use of union website for industrial purposes

Ability to elect workplace delegates

Access to all non-industrial union servicesAccess to membership service centre for remote assistance with individual workplace issues (including workers compensation)
Bargaining member (workers covered by a Union agreement or actively working towards one) Committed (1% to 1.5% of income) Full use of union website for industrial purposes Allocated organiser(s) to assist with campaigning/building worker power for a better agreementFull access to assistance with individual workplace issues (up to representation at tribunals)
Member-organisers (rank and file bargaining members fighting for workers outside their workplace) As above plus an average of in-kind assistance of one hour off site/week More extensive organising trainingRespect as a leader of the working class and the sacrifice that involves None.
Union cooperative members (for those workers who already own the means of production) 2% to 2.5% of income All rights above except that of a member-organiser All of the above plus business services to ensure ongoing viability of cooperativeMediated access to full union subscriber list and network to build market for the enterprise


6 thoughts on “An Indestructible Union (Part 6)

  1. It’s good there’s another left activist who acknowledges Standing’s contributions but also the shortcomings in them.

    Your take on EFTs is definitely leaps and miles ahead of the IWW’s archaic cheque-based due payments. Employer cooperation, even with the best results, is an archaic way of prompt dues collections.

    Damn, I like your direct union continuum, though my comment from Part 5 carries over into this one in terms of more social support provided by unions in the distant past.

  2. Also, I’ve written similar stuff, but as applied to any revival of mass party-movements of the working class, as opposed to union structure.

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