After giving a brief outline of how the union movement can summon up the resources to fight and win technologically, I’d like to move back to the membership continuum. The campaign subscriber is of no real innovation if you’ve ever signed an internet petition or donated online to a cause. It’s pretty standard campaigning stuff. Unions, you know, just need to actually do it. It’s the second step where things have the capacity to get really interesting – that’s the community membership.
In mid-2011, Unite the Union in the UK launched a community membership. It’s a form of union membership that is open to anyone over the age of 16 who is not in paid employment – the unemployed, students, disability pensioners, and retired workers. For a membership contribution of 50p/week the community member gets access to union activist training, local community branch meetings and some other union services (I won’t go into the services here – the whole topic and debate deserves its own discrete posts). This video gives a pretty clear idea of what Unite is building here:
The early results are limited but encouraging with 1,000 community members set up in 60 branches around the UK. In a period of relative disillusionment with the union movement in the English-speaking developed world (not to be confused with the rest of the world as we so often do), it’s understandable that there would be a level of cynicism with this initiative. There are, however, two reasons why the community membership has the capacity to be thoroughly transformative, and one reason why it’s a necessary part of the fightback against overwhelming corporate power.
First, to the theory. I was a young boy during the recession of 1990/1, and my overwhelming impression of the time was that many jobs weren’t coming back. Unemployment was high, many thousands more were being laid off because we were told this was what had to happen for a healthy economy. And from a certain perspective this was correct if you equate a healthy economy with maintaining corporate profits at all costs. My mother had trouble finding any sort of ongoing paid employment, and my father moved overseas in order to find full-time work. I was one of the lucky ones. While the impact of the 2008 Great Recession has been even worse, and there’s no reason to think that if left to the market universal employment is making a comeback anytime in the near future.
Why? Because the mission of those who own the corporations is to make the most amount of profit possible. And when it comes to engaging workers this means squeezing the most amount of value out of the least number of workers. This means shifting factories to the cheapest point of production, investing in machinery, extending working hours, and pushing up the intensity of work to and beyond a person’s physical limits. The result of all of this is you don’t need to engage a whole lot of workers to make a healthy profit. In fact, over time you’d engage less. As an added bonus having a whole bunch of unemployed people gives you more power to extend working hours, and push people beyond their physical limits etc. A golden dividend for those on top of the dung heap and a golden shower for the rest of us.
There is a lazy intellectual tendency to dismiss the relevance of Marxist economic theory to the contemporary situation in the developed world because less and less people are proletarian. This only holds water if the proletariat are equated with (largely male) manual factory workers, which is really just a weird Stalinist fantasy. The proletariat is the fancy Marxist name for the rest of us suckers who don’t actually own the means of production (you know the warehouses, officer towers, factories and iron ore mines). Our ability to get an income depends on working for it. However, the technological development of the capitalist economy has reached a stage where it just needs less workers per unit of output. In other words, more and more of us will experience not being in paid employment – whether through a sheer lack of available jobs, being physically broken by the intensity of work, or just having the bad luck to live in a ecologically exhausted community. Thus, as a matter of theory, for a direct Union act as a vehicle to get us safely through the danger of barbarism/collapse it needs a mechanism to organise the workforce that is necessarily locked out of work. The community membership is one such solution.
The first reason the community membership has the capacity to have a transformational impact is the focus on activist training. It takes those who feel the hardest blow of corporate power and gives them the theory, tools and capacity to fight. This alone opens up possibilities. The second reason, is the emphasis on establishing community branches. Many unions already have retired members associations, and they’ve hardly shook the world. But this system embeds people into their local community and allows for meaningful cooperation between community members and traditional union members who live in the local community. It can either network into or form the beginnings of direct democracy neighbourhood assemblies. This means it can provide the platform for working people to engage directly in the political process without becoming captive to the party system. Community branches can come together to work out whether to run, endorse or support any candidates for political office (or not), or what direct campaigns to push in the local area such as a rent strike/ direct interventions against evictions. It’s here the interactive capacity of the overall Union website gets interesting because it allows for effective local and radical solutions to very quickly become national or even international in scope.
In other words, the community membership provides the realistic beginning point of a new worker politics that is not hostage to the strictures of traditional political parties. It starts with the practical politics of local communities but it has revolutionary potential.