It would be politically naive to regard factionalism as a good or a bad thing.
The world might have been saved much misery if there had been more factionalism within the Nazi party. And it was rival factions which finally got rid of Pol Pot and Caligula, as well as decimating the Ku Klux Klan. Furthermore, it was an ascendant faction which finally brought apartheid to an end.
On the other hand, factional strife allowed the Incas to be conquered. Mussolini owed his rise to factionalism, as did Suharto, the Taliban and Robert Mugabe. And then there's that Neocon faction in the Republican party...
Some factions have gone on to develop enormous influence in their own right, such as the Protestant church, the Bolshevik Party and Hamas. In fact, historically speaking, it might easily be argued that political parties grew out of factions, rather than the other way round.
But let's not mess about. Factional struggles are a serious issue for some unions. Last century the whole movement's course was diverted by a rift between red vs social democratic vs liberal unions. Deep differences were fought out at every level, and in some countries this battle persists. Then there were those decades of squirm as unions tried to work out how to cope with identity politics. There have also been ongoing divisions over strategy, such as organising vs servicing, and opposition vs partnership models.
Is there some way to avoid all of this, or to turn it into something useful? That's what this article is about. We believe there is. To cut a long story short here are the steps we recommend that you take. On the way to defining these, we are performing 3 "reality checks", as you'll see below. Your input will help us develop the discussion further.
Let's start by taking the beast apart. What makes union factions tick?
Naming the Elephants
It is amazing to me that, given the immense influence wielded by factions... not a single definitive work of written analysis of factions exists. Not even a second-rate analysis, for that matter.
Senator Robert Ray, himself a leading member of a right-wing faction within the Australian Labor Party (more)
Are we all ignoring the elephant in the middle of the room (1)? What Senator Ray says above is perhaps a little unfair: there have been several attempts at classifying factions. In the 1970s Giovanni Sartori (2) suggested a model based on interest (power or spoils) and principles (ideologies or ideas). In the '80s Kenneth Janda (3) distinguished between factionalism based on ideology, issues, leadership, and strategy. And this year Françoise Boucek (4) proposed "three faces" of factionalism: cooperative, competitive and degenerative.
Dr Françoise Boucek
• Cooperative factions articulate the opinions and preferences of separate groups in society, and can mobilise disparate memberships and communities towards consensus.
• Competitive factions are opposed groups, rather than just separate ones. They can reform and rejuvenate, but without proper safeguards this may lead to fragmentation.
• Degenerative factions result from perverse incentives and mismanagement, leading to self-serving behaviour which compromises the overall health of the organisation.
the key to maintaining intra-party harmony is to design suitable incentives to align
factions with overall party interest and to maintain an effective overall party
However nobody has ever done this kind of analysis for unions. Boucek's three types may make sense for political parties, but unions are more elusive and complex creatures. For a start, they are not exposed to the harsh glare of public election cycles. There's nothing like a rout at the polls to send a party faction back to the drawing board. By contrast, union leaders come and go, reps are continually being replaced, and there is seldom a union equivalent of a landslide victory. Most staff are appointed by people who are employed by people who were at some stage elected. Most reps are volunteers, and were probably elected unopposed. Nor is there an implacable media poised to reveal intra-union perfidies. And most of the time there is no opposition group breathing down the union's neck. All in all, union democracy allows factions a huge amount of leeway to change their appearance, realign positions, exchange constituents, and continue along their way. Maybe that's why most unions cope so well with their internal differences. Most, but not all.
Deploring vacuums as we do, in early September '08 we proposed a new model based on the classification of key figures involved in the factions. We suggested that these fell into four types: the conservatives (those who want to keep things as they are, or to turn back the clock), the reformers, the opportunists and the ideologues. Because their goals differ, we also suggested that they could be identified by the kind of actions they took, as opposed to their proclamations. This is crucial... most factions would run a mile from being branded with one of the labels we had chosen (except, in some countries, reformer).
Reality Check #1
We asked members of the New Unionism Network to look at the four types, and at a set of associated behaviours (see table here), and then to answer 7 questions by way of the "straw poll" below.
Mapping the factions
The responses we received suggested that most people were comfortable with the labels and the behaviours (81% and 95% respectively). However, paradoxically, this was often at odds with the comments they made. A sample of these is cited above. Such comments led us to think more deeply.
We would now like to propose a revised model which, we believe, answers most of the issues raised. The model is represented in the diagram at right. We have included 50 blue and red points, representing two hypothetical factions, each with 25 members.
This mapping device moves beyond our initial model by:
• separating faction members and faction goals;
• using more neutral terminology;
• using scales rather than categories, to indicate varying degrees;
• depicting a range of positions within the given faction;
• assessing members by how fixed their positions are, rather than attempting to categorise these positions (opportunists and ideologues can exist in any quadrant)
As you can see, we are now using four terms: idealists -- who hold very tightly to their beliefs; pragmatists -- who incline towards compromise depending on the circumstances; status quo factions -- who want things to remain much as they are, or to return to some former state; and reform factions -- who want the organisation to move on to something new (not be confused with the word "reformist", which has different connotations(5)).
Do you feel that this model, and the associated mapping tool, could be used to map factions within your union? If you have a moment, please help us evaluate and develop this revised set of terms. You can do so by the of the form below.
How might the model be applied
If you answered "Yes" to the first question at right, then you may be on your way to naming some elephants. But before you go too far, a couple of warnings:
1] No quadrant is better than any other. This was a key conclusion we took from your earlier comments. Union history is full of moments where the status quo has had to be rigorously protected; where reform has become necessary; where ideals have had to be fought for; and where pragmatic solutions needed to be reached.
2] Individual names need not be placed alongside positions on the map. Although the factions themselves need to be identified (as we have done with colour), nobody needs to know exactly who is placed where. This will probably produce futile disputes.
Each quadrant of the model is likely to be characterised by different behaviour. Below are some suggestions as to what these behaviours might be.
||• Calls for mediation and team spirit;
• Dislike of categorical statements and inflexible commitments;
• Careful monitoring of relationships;
• I suppose we must move with the times.
• ...but we must not throw the baby out with the bath water.
• We can't proceed without a mandate.
||• Opposing or counteracting moves towards deep change;
• Invoking traditions and established procedures;
• Strong support for colleagues with similar views.
• If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
• ...this is the way it's always been done.
• We must put unity first.
||• Embracing a particular set of principles and working in accordance with these;
• Seeking opportunities to shift the union and/or leadership along the same line;
• Actively organizing and lobbying alongside allies who share the same view.
• What's needed around here is better leadership.
• We must stop doing x and start doing y!
• This union has lost touch with the rank and file.
||• Promoting a problem-solving rather than a positional approach;
• Trying to work with all sides, insofar as this is possible/welcome;
• Suggesting compromises or new directions which reduce conflict.
• We need to learn from it our mistakes, make our decisions, and move on.
• If you've got something to say, say it! There are too many whispers around here!
• We mustn't let the perfect become the enemy of the good.
Does this hypothetical model really get us anywhere? As some anonymous philosopher once said, "The best map in the world will not get you anywhere; only going will get you there". To put it another way, naming elephants is one thing; taming them is quite another.
Intermission (with overheard voices)
Robert Michels, German sociologist
(This is a paraphrase, not a direct quote. Click on the speaker's name for info.)
You're wasting your time, you know. There is no way forward. Take a look at my "Iron Law of Oligarchy". All organizations, regardless of how democratic or autocratic they are at the beginning, eventually develop an elite which takes control. Effective functioning requires the concentration of power, and those who have it will use it to preserve or increase their hold.
The weapons they wield are the ability to deny pay raises, assign workloads, and fire or demote anybody who opposes them. And of course they promote those who share their opinions. This ensures that the oligarchy becomes self-perpetuating. Democracy is impossible, especially in large groups and complex organizations.
Ondine (pseudonym: union organiser)
The idea that organizations can't be democratic is history. I work for a union that dismantled bureaucracy from within, after a long factional fight. A large number of our employers have done the same, as well as several sister unions. There are many union leaders looking for ways to build participation, and others are being pushed by members along the same line. In saying this, we have to remember that unions are representative organisations. Most of us -- the elected ones as well as the employed ones -- operate on "best guesses" on what the members want. Sometimes what we think needs to be challenged. Sometimes this leads to disagreements. Sometimes it all degenerates into a row. It's not such a big deal. When this happens the union just needs to go back to the members. Don't try and hide internal disputes from them - that's a recipe for corruption. You'd think we'd have worked this out by now. :-)
Our union did it, and I think the whole process acted as a check on the old guard [dogmatic, bureaucratic, male] who were dominating the union. They knew they wouldn't win by acting in bad faith. They only agreed to a consultation with members because they didn't want to be seen blocking it. Taking the issues out was never going to be easy; we knew their responses wouldn't be simple. Trying to squeeze it all into a vote was like asking for a split in advance. Before this the leadership just consulted whenever they wanted to legitimise their position on something. We got some good advice on consensus-building from the indigenous people's movement, and we borrowed some techniques of deliberative democracy. Since then life has been much simpler. We know the members' views. Two staff tried to distort things, then both resigned. Others are still working out what to do in order to stay. They're getting all the help they need from the union. At last -- no more silly games.
Hal Draper, socialist and free speech activist
Only by fighting for democratic power do (workers) educate themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power. *
Results from Reality Check #2
This was even more conclusive. Of the 86 replies we received, all but two believed that their union's factions could be successfully mapped in this way. One of these rejected the whole notion of factions existing. Eight people reported difficulty placing themselves in the frame, but from their comments it seemed that this was related to whom they envisaged doing the map (eg my colleagues might think of me as a status quo pragmatist, but in reality I think of myself as a pragmatic reformer). There were some comments suggesting refinements or slightly different terminology, but clearly the central approach was considered to be a useful one.
Taming the Elephants
We hope that the revised mapping tool above can help unions to identify, objectify and
depersonalise factional divisions. Having done this, the work of consciously improving the situation can begin.
BUT FIRST... the question that arose most from your comments: who makes the map? There is probably no perfect approach. Mapping could be done by an external agency. It could be done by survey, using a set of confidential, anonymous questions. Staff delegates, elected representatives and union management could meet and map the factions together. Factional leaders could run the exercise separately, and produce a draft for the leadership. Or a special group could be set up to run the whole process. All, several or none of the above... you decide. In a way, as we will see below, this is not such a key issue.
The important thing is that people start seeing the situation aside from faces and egos. In looking at the map, people can then start to consider questions such as:
• How widely separated are the factions?
• How immediately comparable are they?
• How close is the clustering, and what might this mean for the union?
• Given the relative positions, how likely to succeed are approaches like team-building, mediation, conciliation and/or arbitration?
• and what else can be deduced? Two members made interesting comments in this regard.
Ruth Needleman, Professor of Labor Studies
Everyone in a union--to be active--has to belong to an organization within the union. It could be a civil rights committee or a grievance committee. If members are not welcome and want to be active , they must form their own organization within the union. It may be around an issue or it may speak to the direction the leadership is following. Opposition views and multiple organizations within the union all help to promote involvement, dialogue and discussion. (6)
Mike Waghorne, International union activist for public services
There is nothing inherently wrong with factions; people naturally work together with like-minded people, and in doing they often develop ideas and options for their organisation to consider. However problems arise when the organisation can't find a healthy way to do this, especially if it has structures and processes that enable one faction effectively to take over the organisation, to perpetuate itself in that position and to deny other factions a voice. (7)
Many other respondents made similar remarks, to the effect that factions, in themselves, need not be regarded as a problem. However if in-fighting is damaging the union, then we need to get to the root causes.
The real issues
Julia Cameron, novelist, playwright, songwriter and poet
Anger is meant to be acted on. It is not meant to be acted out. Anger points the direction. We are meant to use anger as fuel to take the actions we need to move where our anger points us. With a little thought, we can usually translate the message that our anger is sending us. (8)
ACAS conciliator's motto:
Don't get angry - get curious! Why are people taking the positions they are? Why are they angry? It's a good first step towards a solution. (9)
||In trying to identify the real issues involved there are some fundamental misconceptions to avoid...
Bureaucracy prevents progress
It is tempting to regard rules and regulations as oppressive, however rules are negotiable. Good rules can prevent nepotism, favouritism, bribery and corruption from developing. They can also empower front-line staff, extend members' rights, and help with democratisation and decentralism. That said, the best rules mean nothing unless they are enforced.
||It's all just egos and personalities
This effectively creates an impasse. The union cannot wait around for people's personalities to change! Rather, what are the personalities doing which leads to difficulties? By extension, what needs to change?
||The union has been captured
Avoid seeing ideology as the core problem. People have a right to their beliefs, however what they do with these is fair game for debate. What behaviour is creating trouble? What should be happening instead?
||The problem is communications
This ignores the underlying realities. Communications is a solution -- though it may or may not be an effective one. If not, what deeper changes need to be made (and where) in order for communication to be improved?
||Sometimes it's better just to walk away
Sometimes this is necessary. However if this response becomes a pattern, as it often does with factional fights, then the offending behaviour is effectively rewarded. What needs to be changed so that people no longer feel they must leave? How can member resignations and/or staff turnover be halted?
Having mapped the factions, let's find out what they would prefer for the union's future.
Identify a spokesperson for each major faction and get them to articulate the faction's position as a set of concrete proposals for change.
These must be concrete, specific and achievable. If people express difficulties with management, ask them to decide what managers should be doing instead . If it's about strategy, ask what a better strategy would be. If it's about resources, ask what should be supported that isn't being supported now. If it's about policy, ask what the union should be saying that it isn't currently saying. And if it's about internal culture, ask what their preferred culture would actually look like.
This might take some time, and require effective facilitation, but at the end of the process the factions' positions can then be meaningfully compared.
Now, where do the members stand in relation to these issues? It is, after all, their union. Can we find out without aggravating the problem?
Never use the members to legitimise one or other factional position.
Rather, determine what the members want and then give the factions the task of moving in that direction.
Each of the issues which have been identified can be framed as a simple, direct question. Beware of the pitfalls described at right. Chances are, you will end up with one or more of the following:
• What kind of management style do we want in the union?
• What strategic approach should we be taking?
• How should we divide up the union's resources?
• What should be our policy on x, y and/or z?
• What kind of internal culture should we be building?
Casting the membership as the determining voice may not get rid of your union's factions, but does that really matter? It is the collateral damage of factionalism which must be halted, not people's natural inclination to band together. And in recent years we have seen the rise of some brilliant new tools.
Taking it to the members
Dr Conor Cradden, Independent labour analyst and researcher
There's no doubt that it is going to be difficult for the union movement to move towards deliberative democracy. We are in the habit of developing positions in advance and then going out to win them. The first step towards dealing with factional differences is getting the real problem out onto the table in such a way that people can look at it together. This process requires a shift from a positional approach to a problem-solving one. It means beginning in good faith, with the good of the union's members as the primary consideration. (10)
The term deliberative democracy» was first used in the 1980s to describe a set of tools which encouraged deeper participation and "buy in" than traditional voting allowed. These were adapted from practices within the indigenous peoples' movement, as well as NGOs, market research agencies, religious groups, green parties and polling agencies. In the 1990s the Internet hugely reduced associated costs and logistical problems.
To the right is a set of links describing some of these tools. Used judiciously, they can help you determine what the members are feeling on the issues you have identified (and more). The process need not be expensive, however it will require a serious commitment of time and thought. The good news is that, handled right, this can be the beginning of a larger process of democratisation for the union.
How to design and implement a deliberative democracy process? We will not even try to generalise - there are just too many variables, however it is vital that your process generates material which can:
• be distilled into a clear statement of the members' will
• provide unambiguous guidance on the issue(s) raised
• help the factions review their proposals
• be usefully summarised and presented back to members.
There must be no room for the results to be wilfully misrepresented. Nor for the factions to credibly dispute their interpretation. Obviously it is preferable to get an acceptance of the process in advance, along with an agreement to abide by the results. If this is not possible, then clarity in the deliberations and transparency in their interpretation become all the more important.
We recommend that you seek independent, external help to design the deliberation process. It is critical that the process and the conclusions are free of bias. We are currently preparing a list of union-friendly consultants who can help. If you need advice and can't find it locally, contact email@example.com.
Having identified your factions and discovered where their positions lie in relation to the will of the members, how does the union move on? We have discussed six steps, which are summarised below. A seventh step is also recommended: jointly planning to implement and monitor the members' will.
It is at this point that factional strife can become a mechanism for deepening democracy within the union. The joint planning process can not only relegate the initial problems, but also open up new channels for the membership to become more involved within their the union.
Earlier we noted that no single quadrant of the map was better than any other. However things have now moved on. One way or another, it should be clear that changes are necessary. This implicitly requires flexibility and a willingness to compromise. In other words, the clusters should now be moving towards D: the reform/pragmatist quadrant. To put it another way, according to Boucek's model the factions should be moving from a degenerative or competitive state towards a cooperative one.
If not, then either the deliberative process is being rejected or the members' ownership of the union is being challenged. In the first case, the results can be verified by asking members for ratification. In the second, the members need to be empowered to hold the faction(s) to account.
Planning for the future
No doubt your union has a strategic plan (or some equivalent), and experience with the collective planning process. Without presuming to suggest how, we'd like to suggest that you could strengthen both of these in light of the exercise above. Next time you're going into a planning round, ask yourself the following questions.
• Does the union know for sure that members understand and identify with the vision?
• Do members feel they are contributing in any meaningful way to the mission? If not, how might they do so?
• Do they accept the union's analysis? What areas of this do they want to know more about?
• What about the union targets? Can members think of new ways to help achieve these? Are opportunities being missed?
• Where do members fit in relation to the values you have identified? Do staff understand and share the members' values? Are the values reflected in union communications?
• If you have a primary goal, have the members bought into it? Does it need to be updated in any way?
• In considering the union's strategy, do members see how this relates to them in the workplace? Have circumstances changed in any way which might suggest that more discussion, or a renewed mandate, is necessary?
• Could your evaluation processes benefit from wider input?
• What about finances? Would members appreciate a different format for reporting, or some new approach? (eg triple bottom line)
• Are the needs of members being met by the training that is offered? If not, what's missing?
• What needs to be in the plan to ensure increased cooperation between factions in the future? Remember Boucek's conclusion: "the key to maintaining... harmony is to design suitable incentives to align
factions with overall party interest". (4) In this respect, what positive behaviours should the union be rewarding, and how?
• It has been said that the basis of factionalism... "is not ideology but PATRONAGE, i.e. the ability of factional leaders to confer jobs, honours and other good things on themselves and their favoured supporters" (11) . In planning for the future, how can the union discourage this behaviour?
When we said "ask yourself" above, whom did you think we were referring to? Any of these questions could be directed to the members, and discussed using the tools of deliberative democracy. (If you can't think how, contact firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll bounce around some ideas).
Okay, now it's over to you. What kind of conclusions have YOU drawn in reading this piece?
Open Plan unionism
I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable. - Dwight Eisenhower
Freedom is participation in power.
- Marcus Cicero
The union's next planning round will be a test of good faith. Factions coalesce around lines of power. Their base may be some key position, a committee, an amalgamated body, or a regional branch. This often acts as a recruitment centre, and seeks to promote its own people and ideas. As we have seen, this need not be a bad thing. What's more important is that this base starts transforming itself into a key player in achieving the members' decisions.
If such a shift towards cooperation occurs, then the union may wish to mark the occasion by consciously opting for a more deliberative culture. After all, disputes and points of resistance will emerge again. A new set of issues will arise which needs to be clarified and resolved. Why not set up mechanisms to give the members a continuous voice in this process? This is not an alternative to elections and annual general meetings etc. Rather, deliberative democracy offers us a set of tools» to complement and extend the time-honoured forms.
This kind of change requires (and will help produce) an innovative and responsive leadership. In such an environment the union's plan becomes an open document: targets and milestones can be revised as better information comes to hand; strategies can develop in the light of experience; budgets and teams can be amended according to new priorities. This will be anathema to those who wish to manipulate the organisation. Studies have also shown that such an environment will tend to reward collaborative behaviour. While a formal document called "The Plan" may still be produced, in reality it is now a snapshot rather than a sacred text. Planning has become a culture, rather than a discipline.
There is nothing radical in all this. Such "Open Plan unionism" simply reflects changes which many members are seeing as workers and consumers.
Workers (now) own... the critical means of production. In a modern company 70% to 80% of what people do is now done by way of their intellects. The critical means of production is small, gray, and weighs around 1.3 kilogrammes. It is the human brain. - J Ridderstrale and K Nordstrom (14)
I believe that the future of work is ALL about design, and more specifically democratic design. -
Yves Behar, CEO
Will the union movement become a leader in this field, or will it slowly adapt as changes in production trickle in by osmosis? One thing is for sure: when it comes to competitive factions the price of doing nothing is far higher than the price of change. (15)
(1) For those to whom English is a second language, the expression "an elephant in the middle of the room" refers to some enormous problem that everyone is aware of, but nobody ever mentions. Generally this is because it is just too big to openly confront. Despite this, there may be some who do not (or will not) see it. Either way, it will is difficult to get much accomplished as long as it is there.
(2) Sartori Giovanni (1976) Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis, Volume 1,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Re-issued in 2005, Routledge ECPR Classics.
(3) Janda Kenneth (1993) 'Comparative Political Parties: Research and Theory, Political Science:
The State of the Discipline II, Chapter 7, American Political Science Association.
(4) Boucek Françoise (2008) 'Rethinking Factionalism: Typologies, Intra-Party Dynamics and Three Faces of Factionalism', Party Politics (forthcoming)
(5) "Reformist" is counterposed to "revolutionary" in some countries, particularly those where the labour movement has a strong foundation in Marxist theory. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reformism. The two words should not be confused.
(6) This quote is taken from Ms Needleman's response to the Straw Poll above, and is used with permission.
(7) This quote is taken from the author's discussions with Mr Waghorne on this subject, and is used by permission.
(8) Cameron Julia (2002) 'The Artist's Way', Tarcher; 10th Anniversary Ed edition.
(9) Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service, UK. See http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=2012
(10) This quote is taken from the author's discussions with Dr Cradden on this subject, and is used by permission.
(11) See http://www.humanities.mq.edu.au/Ockham/Factionalism.html
(12) See for instance Heckscher Charles et al (2006), 'The Firm as a Collaborative Community: Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy'; Oxford University Press and The Collaborative Enterprise (2008). Professor Heckscher is also the author of The New Unionism: Employee Involvement in the Changing Corporation, ILR 1996 and is a leading authority on the role of unions in the changing workplace.
(13) Here are the four types of faction we initially proposed, along with associated behaviours:
oppose change or seek a return to the past
• Veto or counteract moves towards change
• Invoke established rules and procedures in face of innovation
• Undermine colleagues associated with a change agenda
seek a new direction, generally through established channels
• Push proposals which inherently require change
• Advance an alternative strategy and tactics
• Lobby members and other staff to support them
work primarily to advance their own interests
|• Place their own interest above that of the union
• Make alliances based on self-interest rather than principle
• Outwardly defer to authority, unless this is not useful
promote particular principles and associated practices
• Embrace a particular set of principles and work accordingly
• Seek to shift the union along the same line
• Identify and oppose alternative viewpoints
(14) J Ridderstrale and K Nordstrom (1999) Funky Business: Talent Makes Capital Dance'; Bookhouse Publishing.
(15) These words have been attributed to US President Bill Clinton, among others.