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Unionism 101

Unionism is about workers standing together to improve their situation, and to help others.

It's not rocket science, in fact it's pretty instinctive behaviour. However, despite UN Conventions, there are almost always restrictions of some kind imposed. As a result, the nitty gritty of unionism differs from country to country.

Some unions have developed as reactive institutions: waiting for the employer to act and then choosing how to respond. Others are proactive: developing their own agenda and then advancing it wherever possible.

Most unions accept that both approaches are valid. Depending on your country and your union's level of influence, becoming a union member can mean:

Being reactive:
• resisting unfair changes at work
• seeking improved working conditions

• pushing for higher pay
• campaigning in support of other workers
• demanding better health and safety protection
• exposing cases of harassment or bullying

Becoming proactive:
• taking steps to make the workplace more democratic
• pushing for changes in workplace culture
• striving to improve workplace relationships
• developing pro-environment proposals
• seeking fairer systems for decision-making
• surveying staff for stress/overload levels
• pressing for ethical and socially responsible behaviour

Because unions are democratic, workplace members need to discuss these options (and any others which members identify) and then define their own goals. It is the job of uour union official to help you in this process.

exclamationA union is only as strong as its membership. Deciding not to join, or putting the decision off, weakens your colleagues' voice. In order to make change, unions need you as much as you need them.

younionizeJoining a union
If you would like to join a union but do not know which one, you can browse our database here.

Union representatives
Among the members of a union, there are usually a few who have volunteered or been elected to take a larger role. This may involve general trouble-shooting, leading negotiations, convening members' meetings, helping facilitate decision-making, collecting dues, and/or acting as a front line between members and management. Depending on the country, these people are called stewards, shop stewards, reps or delegates. Together, this group has made the union movement by far the largest volunteer force in the world. Without them, unionism is nothing.

Union staff
Most unions, in developed countries at least, have paid union officials (aka officers or organizers). Their role is to work with members and their representatives to advance the overall union position. They can do this in a number of ways, and the approach they take largely determines the way the union is defined (see right). For instance in a social movement union with a strong focus on "the organizing model", paid staff are there to provide support, ensuring that the right resources and training are there for reps. They also make links between the struggles of one set of workers and another. By contrast, the business model of unionism sees these officials more as "supervisors", whose role is to deliver services and provide leadership, as well as negotiating pay and conditions.

Collective bargaining
At some stage most unions will sit down with employer representatives to negotiate over pay and conditions, etc. This often leads to a "collective agreement", which in most countries is legally binding. Such an agreement sets out the parties' rights and responsibilities, and fixes such things as wages, leave and sick pay entitlements, consultation and grievance procedures, and provisions for redundancy and dismissal. In some situations the results of this bargaining are then extended to employees who are not members of the union, thus setting industry standards. For this reason unions generally have a social effect that goes far beyond their membership numbers.

When a problem arises at work, the union rep will often step in and try to resolve it before things get out of hand. This tends to involve informal negotiation. Sometimes other members and/or a union officer will be called on for support. The more serious the problem, the more likely it is that negotations will become formal. In negotiation and bargaining (see below) there are different approaches the union can take. Although the terminology used may differ from country to country, the two main approaches are fairly consistent:

  •  Positional negotiation (part of an advocacy-based approach) involve the parties meeting in advance and hammering out a position, often with a bottom line, some pre-determined concessions, and an overall strategy.

  • Problem-solving negotiation (part of the win/win approach) involves the parties coming to an agreement on what the issues are, using various techniques to discuss these, and then looking for the best possible solution(s).

The approach a union takes during negotiations depends very much upon the workers' relationship with their employer. It also goes a long way towards determining this relationship for the future.
For this reason unions generally avoid black-and-white assumptions about one approach over the other.

Industrial action
When unions and management fail to reach agreement, or where relations break down, the union has the option of pursuing industrial action. This can take the form of a strike, a go-slow, a work-to-rule, a slow-down, an overtime ban, or even an occupation. Sometimes, other unions will take actions in solidarity with the initial group, and in rare instances this can lead to a general strike. Different countries have different legislation governing industrial action, with some trying to suppress it altogether.

QDon't unions ultimately drive jobs offshore?
In an economy based on competition, companies are driven to cut costs and increase profits in any way they can. This sets in place a "race to the bottom". If unions settled for wage reductions of 50%, pretty soon this lower wage rate would set an industry standard, and further cuts would be necessary to maintain competitiveness. AThe solution is not to settle for a spiral of decreasing pay and conditions, but to ensure that rights and wages in developing countries are raised. For this reason, many unions are now working across national borders, seeking fair pay and labour rights for workers in the developing world. There has recently been improved legislation in China, and substantial wage increases in both China and India. With this, of course, came company threats to relocate -- to take offshored jobs offshore. It's going to be a long, hard struggle.

qWhy is the union movement in decline?
It isn't, if we look at the movement internationally. According to the best information we have been able to collect (and we believe we have more than any other organisation), union decline ended in about 2003, and membership numbers have been increasing since then (more details). Unfortunately, the last authoritative international report was published by the ILO in 1997. It is this document that underscores the dominant media narrative. And, without the resources and influence that the ILO can call on, we can't update the record.
The ILO has avoided committing themselves to another report because the numbers game is extraordinarily complex. Some unions in some countries include student members, Aothers include the unemployed and/or retirees. Some deliberately report figures that are too high (eg to lift their prestige), while others report the numbers too low (eg to avoid "capitation fees" set by their national centre, etc). Many do not have any reliable data at all. Then there are those interminable disputes over what a "real" union is... a debate which has enormous implications for the totals (particularly as China's unions are regarded as contentious, leaving a question mark over more than 200 million members). You'll find our data by country here.

What is a union?

Let's make it easy. Let's just say there is no satisfactory definition of the word union.

Not satisfied with that? OK, take a deep breath and read on...

interlockedIt goes something like this. Unions are democratic organisations set up by workers to advance their social and economic interests, as a class.

Their exact organisational form depends on historical, national, political and legal factors. A union in Sweden is a very different thing from one in the United States. And unionism is even more diverse in countries such as Colombia, China, Lithuania, Egypt, Bhutan, the United Arab Emirates, the Philippines and Equatorial Guinea.

There are at least four great union traditions at work in the world today- see 'Models of Unionism' below. In some countries unions are little more than mouthpieces for political parties or contending faiths. In others they are heavily restricted, and can do little more than hold social events or provide support to members' families. In others they have been driven underground, or forced into exile. And in a few cases they have been co-opted, and are just another mechanism for extending social control.

To complicate things further, unions can form around single employers, related companies, particular trades, industries, sectors, or the wide-open "general" category.

Then there are those "in-house" or "shop" unions which are set up by employers to keep real unions out.

Most of these vagaries are caused by externally-imposed conditions. The movement has a proud history of sorting such problems out over time. Setting such complications aside, nothing should prevent us from acknowledging that unions are, by far, the largest democratic force operating in the world today.

Now, back to the complications. Where and how do we draw the lines between the genuine, the compromised and the bogus unions?

The International Labour Organisation defines a union as: "an independent organization, consisting predominantly of employees, the principal activities of which include the negotiation of rates of pay and conditions of employment for its members".

It's a definition that raises more questions than it answers. For instance, does this mean that unions in countries where bargaining is illegal are not 'real'? And what if employers totally refuse to meet with unions - does this mean the latter are not valid bodies? What about unions whose principle activity is to extend workers' influence (ie rather than the service-centred role which the ILO prescribes)? And can't unions form to represent groups other than traditional employees? (eg the self-employed, workers in cooperatives, peasant farmers, slaves in Western Africa, volunteers, the unemployed etc)? The shadow of the Cold War continues to tip the scales at the ILO. Folks: your definition needs an update.

The Oxford English dictionary is more permissive. A union is: "an organized association of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests." But what if that noble intention is changed after the association is formed? This can happen when one clique or another captures the union. Shouldn't we have the word "democratic" in our definition somewhere? And something about independence from employer control?

These are also questions of degree. Some unions win their independence (from the State, or the employer etc) in small incremental steps. Others do it by legislative change at the top. Sooner or later they may reach a threshold where they suddenly meet the definition. Does this mean that they sprung into being overnight, and that the union movement has suddenly grown by a corresponding number? This is no abstract question. There are those who would discount (until their ideal conditions are met) all 209,000,000 members of China's ACFTU. Others say the ACFTU is becoming a real union. Does this mean 209,000,000 extra unionists are about to materialise? Who decides?

Rather than looking for an ideal definition that can be used to separate unions into genuine and bogus, let's regard them in much the same way we do governments. A puppet regime is still a government, just as a fully-fledged and functional democracy is. The point is not whether we count it as "genuine", but how we relate to it. And as we have seen with governments, enforcing isolation is not a very productive strategy.

We started by trying to define what a union is. The fact that it has become so complicated should be no surprise; try asking related questions such as: "What is a job?" and "What is a government?". After all, form follows function. What can unions become? Unionism is work in progress. And that's where you come in.

Models of unionism

Social partnership unionism
Following WWII, centre-left governments came to power throughout most of Europe. In many countries this led to unions being recognised as "social partners" in industry and governance. There are many variations on this, such as co-determination in Germany and Austria, the Polder model in the Netherlands, industrial democracy in Scandinavian countries, and more recent experiments with partnership, such as that in Ireland. Various unions outside of Europe, including some in the United States, the UK, South Africa and New Zealand. have also experimented with labor-management cooperation and/or partnership. Where the union movement has become a social partner, union membership has tended to increase. However, the rise of neoliberalism and globalisation led many to conclude that the social partnership model is in crisis. See also neocorporatism, Ghent system, flexicurity.

Social movement unionism

The late 20th century saw a meteoric rise in the number and influence of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) In some countries, particularly Brazil, South Africa, the Philippines and South Korea, this led to extremely influential alliances with the union movement. In fighting jointly for social and economic justice, unions developed a broader political agenda that has come to be known as social movement unionism. In the 1990s this spread from developing countries to richer nations, particularly certain unions in the USA.

Organizing unionism
Organizing unionism has developed in relation to the failures of the 'servicing' or 'business' model (see below). It locates the centre of the union in the workplace itself, with union officials serving as facilitators and mentors, rather than service providers. As one organizer put it: "You don't join a gym so your trainer can work out for you". Typically, organizing unions insist that all union staff and programs are squarely focussed on the goals of increasing membership numbers and influence. This does not preclude other work (eg international projects, the provision of pensions etc), but tends to keeps it highly grounded in a strategic plan. Initially centred in the USA, organizing unionism is now being adapted for use in other regions.

Business (or servicing) unionism
Business unionism restricts itself to servicing members, rather than helping them organize themselves. It pursues straightforward goals such as higher wages and improvements in hours and working conditions. Such an approach leaves enterprise-level decisions to management, and largely ignores wider social goals. Unions such as this often tend to operate as commercial entities themselves, rather than member-driven organisations. Often they are financially dependent on income generated by deals on discounted retail goods and services. Business unionism has had difficulty adjusting to a globalised economy and labor market, and has been in general decline since the 1950s. more»

State-controlled unionism
There are a number of countries where, for one reason or another, the state has ended up with a controlling voice in union affairs. The unions of Eastern Europe, pre-1990, were a classic example. Today hundreds of millions of workers are represented by such unions, largely because governments on both sides of the Cold War spent enormous sums trying to configure the labour movement in their preferred image. However, there are signs of increasing progress (ie towards union control by members) in almost every country where this model predominates. There has been surprisingly little research done into the work these unions are carrying out, both locally and within various international forums.

New unionism
There have been two major periods in labor history known as "New Unionism", and they are closely linked (more). The first began in the 1880s, as craft-based structures gave way to industrial unions, and a new generation of leaders pushed a more inclusive and socially ambitious approach. Interrupted by WWI and subsequent ideological battles, the model was then adapted and applied again (especially in the UK and Brazil) towards the close of the century. New Unionism emphasises the empowerment of workplace reps through the organizing model, while also pushing for deeper democracy in the workplace, and working strategically across national borders. more»

Some of the remaining types are listed below. Obviously, there are also hybrids. If you think about these you'll soon see why unions can become confused over coverage, and end up competing for members.

Industrial unionism is based around workers in a single industry, no matter what their job or level of training. For instance if union X organizes workers in the insurance industry, it would aim to recruit all insurance workers as well as the staff who run the IT systems, those in the call centres, and the advertising and PR staff. more»

Craft unionism is based around workers in a particular trade, such as pipefitters, teachers, carpenters, doctors or journalists. more»

Company unionism is based around the employees of a single company. In developing countries this is a common form, but in developed countries such unions have mostly federated and become one of the other types listed above. In the USA in particular, the expression is usually derogatory, implying employer control. It is often used interchangeably with "yellow unionism". more»

General unionism is as open and inclusive as possible. A general union may have members who are nurses, plumbers, civil servants, waitresses and/or self-employed contractors. This form was a favourite of the first-wave new unionists. more»
Revolutionary or syndicalist unionism is dedicated to the overthrow of the capitalist system. There are not many such unions left, largely because most worker collectives include a range of political beliefs. Dividing workers along ideological lines has proven to be a rather fruitless approach. more»