This week the National Union of Workers (disclaimer: where I work) launched a new form of Union membership – a community membership. From a personal perspective, in this post I would like to outline what I think this means for the union movement in Australia and the prospect of building for progressive change.
Like all things new and innovative when it comes to organising – it is neither. The NUW’s community membership has been influenced by Unite the Union and Unifor‘s efforts to organise beyond the traditional employment relationship. Another historical influence has been unemployed workers in Australia organising during the Great Depression.
Community membership is a form of union membership which is open to anyone in Australia but it is predominantly aimed at people who are outside of paid work: carers, volunteers, the unemployed, students and the retired. As such the membership rates are correspondingly low – at a $1/week and have been designed to be affordable for someone who is on low to little income. The reason is that the membership rate can be set so low is that community members do not have an organiser allocated to them nor do they get representation on the job. As I’ve blogged about earlier, supporting enterprise bargaining and handling enterprise level grievances takes up a vast majority of resources of union resources. It takes time, effort, experience and a good deal of infrastructure support behind it for a union official to assist any workplace get an agreement, protect it and improve it over time. Further, we know for those workers who have a union agreement this has made a material difference to their lives – getting on average a 20% premium on their wages compared with non-union workers in similar workplaces. If, however, you’re either not in work or hovering at the edges of the labour market this makes little difference for you.
More and more of us, however, are going to find ourselves outside, on the edge of or transitioning through the labour market more often. As Alan Kohler has written about, we are in the midst of a robot-based industrial revolution where employment is contracting in a growing economy. Sure robotics might create some jobs but overwhelmingly more jobs in manufacturing and services will be destroyed. As an aside, we’re likely to also see the proletarianisation of traditionally skilled services work (akin to what happened to artisan based manufacturing in the 19th century), where as one example surgeons are replaced by technicians supporting a robot who carries out a surgical operation. We’ll all still have to work hard to make a living but there will be a growing trend for this to occur outside of the traditional employment relationship. In a world where labour income is drying up, then more questions will need to be asked about the ownership of capital and the distribution of income from it. And where few and fewer people are needed to labour for profit, then the fight to ensure all those people have at least a living wage for their toil will not be enough to ensure a broadly prosperous and healthy community. In addition, those in jobs will need to rely more on the help and support of the community to win justice and respect. This is why community membership is critical to building long-term worker power.
We also seeing a growing anti-political mood. Cynicism with politicians and traditional representative structures is growing. We can see it writ large on our Australian political discourse – Abbott is already treated as a joke by the general public after barely 9 months as Prime Minister. We can also see it in the gaps – for the third year in a row the Lowy Poll confirmed that 58% of 18 – 29 years don’t see our democracy as preferable to any other form of government – the two main reasons given for this statement being that there is no substantive difference between the major parties and that the current system only serves the interest of the few and not the many. Apparently this doesn’t qualify as news though. In other words, people are frustrated with the current system and don’t see the point of joining traditional political parties as a means with which to effect change. When pressure builds it needs an outlet – productive or otherwise. The community membership can be an outlet for this – a way for people of various ideological and political party preferences but who nonetheless share in the values of equality, dignity and respect to campaign directly where they live.
So, how might community membership work and what would it offer a prospective member? Currently it offers a prospective member five key benefits, which I imagine will be refined and built upon over time:
- The ability to get active – that is the ability to participate in activist training and to use the Union’s campaigning tools/resources
- Seeking help getting employment in looking for working in NUW industries
- Having a say in the NUW’s campaigns, actions and policy proposals
- Access to existing non-industrial union services
- The ability to get connected using the union’s technology and form communities/groups of interest (sometimes with existing industrial members) for instance NZ citizens in SE Qld looking for equality, public housing tenants in Broadmeadows
It is the last dot-point which I hope grows more interesting as time goes on. For what it will allow is all those looking to change the world for the better the chance to develop an organic connection with the communities that they presume to currently speak for. It also has within it the potential for people disenfranchised from the existing system to establish their own deliberative spaces – to prefigure a better world.
From little things, big things grow. The NUW’s community membership is at the start of a long journey. It will have its own barriers. Its own moments of excitement. If you want to see where this might end up going then join me.