union labor

New Unionism?

New unionism is about seeking creative ways to organizeinternationally to democratize work. Together, these four principles (organizing, internationalism, creativity and workplace democracy) unite us as a network of union activists.

The New Unionism approach can trace its roots back more than 100 years. First came the historical 'New Unionism' movement of the mid-1880s. Craft-based structures gave way to industrial unions, and a new generation of activists forced unions to become more open, democratic and visionary. In the wave of strikes and campaigns that followed, the trade union movement we know today was born (see below).

This first period of new unionism came to an end with World War One, when the movement's openness and creativity were subsumed in a battle of ideologies that lasted most of the remaining century.

After World War Two, many richer countries decided unions should become "social partners" in the massive task of reconstruction. Others sought the same result by yoking unions to the State. Still others did their brutal best to ensure that no compromise with labour was necessary. However, a second wave of new unionism began when both social dialogue and totalitarianism started to unravel.

Working people in poorer countries have been developing new forms of organizing, transforming politics across Africa, South America, Asia and (more recently) the Middle East. As the Cold War came to an end, "yellow unions" and corrupt union bureaucracies were no longer propped up from outside; top-down ideologies were no longer sponsored. Neo-liberalism and globalisation changed the rules, and "business unionism" went into decline. More recently, unions in Europe began to rebuild their organizing capacity. New organizing initiatives in the global south proved their worth. And, at the same time, the development of the Internet and social networking technologies have allowed for a deep renewal in grass-roots activism. This time, new unionism is going global.

While old-school 'business unionism' restricts itself to negotiating wages and conditions, new unionism actively seeks to identify, articulate and realise members' aspirations.

This means that unions need to listen. It means shifting the union HQ down into the workplace. It means engaging around issues that the members choose, irrespective of traditional 'management prerogatives'. It means challenging the master-servant relationship at work, and linking up with colleagues across company supply chains, within social movements, and beyond national borders.

The New Unionism Network was formed in 2007 to help us all keep up!



The Network

In trying to bring some of these strands together, we have identified four key principles (see above right). We are building our network around these, rather than around policies and positions, because this allows members to choose their own way forward, in keeping with their own national, ploticial and cultural contexts.

Until recently, the debate about global unionism has been playing out at senior level. New structures have been bolted onto old ones. Labor academics have crossed swords in journals behind user-pays web portals. Very little of this has filtered back to the members, and when it does, it is deeply obscured by bureau-code and acronyms.  Those with the most at stake—working people—have had no direct voice in the discussion.

We want to change that.

The labour market, unions and business have gone global; we want to bring as much of this process as possible into open daylight. Many of our union officials work in this area. Others struggle to keep things real in academia.

If you want to join us and stay in the loop, click here»



Old New Unionism

There have been two main periods in labor history known as "New Unionism", and they are closely linked.

In 1888 women at the Bryant & May match factory in London began what might well be the most significant strike in history*: and their success ushered in a new era of expansion in union membership, social ambition and influence. A year later came the London dockers' strike, and within twelve months membership of the UK's Trade Union Congress had increased from 670,000 to 1,593,000.

Although created later, this poster from the U.S.A.'s IWW (aka "the Wobblies") captures the spirit and goals of that first movement wonderfully.


It was a period in which unions went beyond simply reacting to imposed agendas and began to develop their own, including ambitious social goals. Labor historian R.A. Leeson described the shift in these words:

"Two conflicting views of the trade-union movement strove for ascendancy in the nineteenth century: one the defensive-restrictive gild-craft tradition passed down through journeymen's clubs and friendly societies,... the other the aggressive-expansionist drive to unite all 'labouring men and women' for a 'different order of things'..."

Speaking in 1892, W.G. Spence, made the following comments on "The Ethics of New Unionism":

union ethics"In the old days labor looked askance at the employer and felt a hatred for him. New Unionism is today looking beyond the employer and fixing its hatred upon the system, which is bad not alone for the worker, but for the employer - which forces the employer to act unjustly even if (they do) not wish to do so."

He continued:

"...there was spreading amongst unionists this idea... that they could not affect the improvement they desired by dealing only with the mere question of hours and wages. And so comes what has been termed the "new unionism" - a unionism wide and broad in its aim, and one which will certainly be far-reaching in its effects... We are aiming now at securing an improvement by social and political reforms - and by that means alone a revolution will undoubtedly be effected in time. When I use the word revolution do not misunderstand me - I mean a quiet one. It will be a change from one condition to another."

Revolution? So where does this fit in with early communism, Marx, Engels, Lenin and all that?

Because of its deeper social agenda, New Unionism was described at the time as "labor socialism", or "evolutionary socialism". Karl Marx was a champion of the early New Unionists:

"The old Unions preserve the traditions of the time when they were founded, and look upon the wages system as a once-for-all established, final fact, which they at best can modify in the interest of their members. The new Unions were founded at a time when the faith in the eternity of the wages system was severely shaken... And thus we see now these new Unions taking the lead of the working-class movement generally, and more and more taking in tow the rich and proud, old Unions. ...glad and proud I am to have lived to see it."

However, World War One interrupted New Unionism's evolution. When it was over, leaving many of the traditional power relations shattered, three contending ideologies (soviet, anti-communist and Christian social-democrat) were openly competing for control of the movement.

The Great Split
In 1920 there was a crucial split in the labour movement. At the Second Congress of the Comintern, V.I. Lenin proposed “Twenty One Conditions” that must be met in order for communists and socialists to work together (more). In effect, the communists demanded allegiance to the Soviet order. Those who agreed pledged themselves to struggle against any force which was working to reform capitalism.

The same year saw a secondary split, with the formation of  the "International Federation of Christian Trade Unions" - designed to provide an alternative to the anti-religious trade unions in Europe at the time.

World War Two papered over these cracks for a while, but as soon as it was over the primary dispute - often described in terms of "reform vs revolution" - resurfaced. Within a few years the Cold War had set this division in concrete, and Russian and US-dominated forces went into battle in every imaginable way for control over the direction of unionism. It was a struggle in which workers' voices were generally drowned out.

The effects of the 1920 split have passed into this century. Vestiges of top-down ideologically-based controls are still evident in many unions today.

However, the splits started to become increasingly irrelevant as the Cold War receded. In 2006 the original Christian federation (changed and renamed) joined the originally anti-communist federation, and established a new global union body called the ITUC. The remaining international group, the WFTU (which had pushed a pre-1950s soviet line) has lost more than half of its membership, and is struggling to find a new way forward.

With the power of these three ideologies subsiding, the drive for social change is again emerging from below. New Unionism is again finding expression within organised labour, as it faces a whole new set of problems: environmental catastrophe, institutionalised conflicts, globalised economics and an increasingly borderless labor market.

We have set up this network to show that the second wave of New Unionism, like its 19th century predecessor, is democratic, rather than bureaucratic, and takes lessons from creative practice (including mistakes!) rather than from ideology. The people involved are those closest to the issues: trade unionists, workers and those labor academics who are engaged in practical research. You'll find some of them listed here»

So, where to now? The 21st century New Unionism movement is still defining itself, as the various strands increase their networking. However, this time it will take more than 10 days to shake the world. It will not be about a "vanguard" seizing power, as in the Russian revolution. If there is one thing we have learned from theprogressive uprisings in the 21st century, it is that the network is the vanguard. (Thanks to member Dan Gallin for putting that into words). Labor activist Hal Draper put it well, many years ago: "Only by fighting for democratic power do (workers) educate themselves up to the level of being able to wield that power."

4 key principles

workplace democracy»


1. Organizing
labor organizingThe union movement has long debated over "servicing versus organizing". According to the servicing model, union representatives are staunch, necessary folk who appear in the workplace when summoned, and deal with disputes in such a way that others are convinced that they, too, should join. While they are there, they also offer cheap rates on insurance, tyres, travel and accommodation.

According to the organizing model, the union itself exists primarily in the workplace... in the largest sense that is possible. It lives and breathes at work, in the form of the members themselves, including their elected representatives. Union staff are employed primarily to support this latter group in their work, and to deliver the skills and tools that members need.

In most unions—in theory at leastthe argument for the organizing model won hands down. Then, all of a sudden, nothing happened. Or rather, membership continued to decline. This led many unions in the '80s and '90s to re-examine their priorities. Bureaucratic practices started to lose ground. Scholarly policy documents? Optional retirement schemes? Much good work has been done in these areas, but how come we still haven't worked out how to effectively organize seasonal, contract and/or temporary workers? Why do young people still feel alienated from the movement? How can everything change so that it contributes to building influence for working people?

In the late 1990s the results of various experiments with "the organizing model" started to speak for themselves. Most unions who had shifted their resources into organizing, and navigated the internal resistance, were either growing or had at least arrested the decline.
This pattern has continued for six or seven years now. More recently still, there has been a subtle shift. Organizing, yes. But organizing for what?

2. Workplace Democracy

workplace democracySome unions have begun discussing models of economic democracy and workplace reform. Some have become involved in developing new structures for "social dialogue". More and more, unions are being urged by their members to broaden their agenda - to engage with employers and governments on a wider range of issues, such as workplace culture, organisation reform and sectoral restructuring. Some unions saw this as collaboration (in the negative sense of the word). The word "partnership" was at the centre of a long and ultimately fruitless debate. While this went on, studies continued to show that working people are wanting an independent, collective voice in the workplace.

This coincided with changes in production -- changes which required management to engage the intelligence (not just the time and the muscle) of their workforce. Should unions ignore this? Or should they actively engage in the role? Difficult questions regarding the aspirations and goals of unionism were raised. For working people the answer continued to be straightforward: we want influence. Studies showed that this does not mean "sweetheart deals",  nor finely worded consultation clauses. In fact partnership agreements and boardroom invitations meant nothing unless they helped to foster workplace democracy. The unions who saw this, and acted upon it, started to buzz. In pressing for workplace democracy, they were issuing a fundamental challenge to the master- servant relationship. In such unions workplace reps have become actively involved in setting agendas, rather than just responding to them. Members' involvement has also become more creative. Union membership figures reflect this. Workplace democracy is something worth organizing for.
3. Creative thinking
union creativityIt is the creative combination of organizing and workplace democracy that leads activists in the direction of new unionism. This is the Work in Progress to which our newsletter refers. However, in reasserting themselves as a creative social force, unions face major obstacles. The influence of the 1920s split (see left) and the Cold War still linger, with the development of unionism (particularly in developing countries) still often manipulated by external forces.

Many of the movement's divisions are the product of conflicts that have long since ended. Unfortunately, rifts do not mend so easily. Unions in many countries also face problems linked to hostile legislation and government repression. How creative can unionists be in a country like Colombia, for instance, where even the most basic organizing can lead to workers being murdered?

Despite all this, unionism's difficulties can be generalised. Creative thinking can be applied in almost any context.

labor organizing

Too much emphasis on engagement alone (as in the quadrant A above) does not lead to Workplace Democracy. Generally, it leads to the union being co-opted. Words like "cosying up" and "selling out " are bandied about sourly by members. Deals appear from behind closed doors. Conditions are eroded; members feel alienated and betrayed by their union.

Too much emphasis on organizing alone (as in C above) produces a shallow, angry unionism, where members do little more than react to their employer's agenda. The union feels that its role is to maintain aggression, and internal communications  centre around tales of employer abuses and tricks.

Too little of both (ie B above) is the worst position of all. Members wonder why they bothered joining, as the union never does anything. New staff don't join, and management don't bother listening to the union reps. Why should they?

And D?  These are the stories we want to tell you about. Elections for workplace reps (aka delegates, shop stewards) are actively contested. Workers develop skills and swap tasks in line with their interests and abilities. Workplace culture is tabled as a matter for negotiation. Health and safety officers look for bullying, stress and or depression, as well as "blood on the factory floor". The employer understands that workers have a dynamic, independent agenda, but (willingly or not) learns to accept this fact. Ideas are sought out and heard by both sides, and the union is seen as a major player in the life of the workplace. Membership rises. Things happen. The organisation is headed in the general direction of workplace democracy.

4. Internationalism
labour internationalismThe world's workforce is being globalised, along with finance and trade. Can wage levels be maintained when the labour pool has just swelled by the joint populations of China, Russia, and India... ? What use is shop floor militancy if it simply drives production offshore? If we get a good pay rise here, do we give a competitive advantage to companies there (ie companies that pay their workers less)?
Unions are now engaging globally to answer these questions. A new world federation was formed in 2006. The world's first multinational union is in development. Social networking tools are allowing workers to launch campaigns across borders. Needs-driven "global alliances" are coming together and doing tremendously effective work around selected projects. Unions are learning to negotiate international framework agreements, ethical guidelines, and/or global codes of conduct. Better, some unions are learning how to enforce them.

Much of this corresponds with the principles set out above, but how many working people are actively engaged? How many are aware that they are part of the "ITUC" - an organisation that can claim to represent 168 million workers in more than 150 countries? Such organisations need and deserve our support, but how?
Let's try and answer these questions collectively! That, in a nutshell, is what New Unionism is about. And that, in a nutshell, is why we want you to join.  




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