Is this the future of unions?

There is a tide starting to rise in the world of progressive activism, and unions in Australia and globally may get caught in it.

The tide is comprised of decentralised, leaderless, temporary movements, empowered by online organising platforms like MoveOn,, Avaaz, Twitter and Facebook. These platforms have given everyday people unprecedented power to come together quickly and in large numbers over a very short period of time to achieve a common goal, and then disperse.

In my view, these changes are largely being driven by generational attitudes and the rapid deployment of “disruptive technology”.

For progressive institutions, like unions or non-profits like Amnesty International, Oxfam, Greenpeace or the Sierra Club, there are both great opportunities and significant risks.

As a case study, I’d like to look at a campaign run by United Voice in Queensland. United Voice is a progressive union that represents minimum-wage workers like cleaners, childcare professionals, security guards, bakers and the like.

For many years, United Voice has been organising at the Brisbane Airport. The airport, despite being majority owned by industry superannuation funds, including Australian Super (the fund for cleaners), used contract cleaning. This form of employment is particularly exploitative of international students, whose Visa conditions make it unlawful to work more than a certain number of hours per week. However, the contractor would often ignore this and employ the international students for more hours.

As was reported in the Brisbane Times, this resulted in an unethical cleaning supervisor at the Brisbane airport blackmailing women international students for sexual favours. United Voice raised this and other unlawful employment practices with the management of the Brisbane Airport but were told it was a contractor issue, and thus not the responsibility of the Airport.

United Voice decided to run a petition on the site CoWorker about the sexual abuse taking place, and in a very short space of time, over 2,800 people signed the petition. The person fronting the petition was one of the young international student cleaners who worked at the Airport and had witnessed the supervisor’s sexual abuse and was speaking out.

Within a few days, the Airport was forced to act. The supervisor was fired and investigated by the police, and the Airport management agreed to negotiate with the union over various employment matters for the cleaners.

This on the one hand was a great result of the union and the workers.

But it highlights an underlying fundamental. Although it was the union who had done most of the organisation behind the scene, there was nothing union-specific about the tactic which had resulted in the win. Anyone could have set up that petition.

In fact, the CoWorker site is filled with examples of everyday people organising actions in the workplace where there is a union vacuum. People within and outside a workplace are coming together very quickly to take action on a specific issue. Union campaigners should be both heartened and worried at this.

If workers don’t need a union institution to win change in their workplace, what will cause them to join in the future?

Another example of the rise of these decentralised, leaderless movements, is the Occupy movement that sprung up in 2011 and quickly spread throughout the industrialised world. People came together in a decentralised, disorganised, leaderless way, empowered by social networks and the Internet, and then dispersed leaving no institution behind.

A more recent Australian version is the “March in March” Facebook movement, which saw over 50,000 people take to the streets on Sunday 16th of March. While it remains to be seen whether this movement turns into anything, the reality is that thinking about permanence or “demands” utterly misunderstands what these groups are.

Rather than express their dissatisfaction and frustration through formal institutions, 30,000 people march in Melbourne and tens of thousands in Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide, Hobart, Perth, Brisbane and Alice Springs, simply through a Facebook page. This is a fundamental shift in how civic protests organise themselves. They come together quickly, then disperse. Are traditional advocacy institutions relevant in these circumstances?

For other non-profits, you just need to look at platforms like Avaaz and which regularly campaign on environmental or human rights issues, putting similar pressure on the Sierra Club or Amnesty.

In response to crisis-levels of membership density in the USA and New Zealand, the peak union bodies have decided to adopt a new organisational model to promote unionism and collective action. The response is (in my view) largely due to very hostile anti-worker laws, which place severe restrictions on what registered unions can do.

In the USA, the AFL-CIO has created Working America, a “community affiliate”. Working America campaigns outside the workplace for the various social and economic objectives of unions, and works to build a membership from non-unionised working people who traditionally are viewed as Republicans or “Fox News viewers”.

Membership of Working America is free, although members are encouraged to become regular donors, in place of membership dues.

By all accounts, the Working America experiment is very successful. Free of the legal straightjackets imposed by the US Labor laws, Working America is more agile and responsive than many traditional unions. Additionally, models like Working America facilitate working people to organise in hostile anti-union workplaces like Walmart.

People who have never had a union experience can learn what it is like to act collectively and win dignity at work. Without the requirement to formally register a union, workers can organise and take action without the legal strictures of a union ballot and the risks of union-busting campaigns by employers.

Similarly, there is an interesting experiment in New Zealand that is similar to Working America. Called Together, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions is attempting to organise a very dangerous, un-unionised workforce in the forestry industry.

The forestry industry in NZ is rife with unethical contracting and subcontracting, which has resulted in low safety standards and an unprecedented level of workplace deaths. It is also un-unionised and New Zealand’s workplace laws place very onerous restrictions on unions and workers to organise an employer or workplace.

The NZCTU in response has created a community model of unionism in Together, where the cost of entry is just a dollar and members are encouraged to donate in lieu of regular membership dues.

Members of Together get the full benefits of union membership, including workplace advice and assistance, and advocacy, although (as far as I’m aware) distinct from the formal legal structures that a union would have.

Together is New Zealand-wide effort, with something particularly interesting happening in the forestry sector. The NZCTU and the First Union, which has formal coverage over forestry, have created First Forestry Together. Because the largest traditional barrier to entry (membership dues) has been removed, Together is finding that their organising conversations with forestry workers and their families has become much easier. Together has Family membership options (so parents can join up their kids who may work in forestry), and also Whanau membership (Whanau are Maori extended families). Remember, the objective in this case is to organise the forestry industry, rather than to grow a union’s financial membership on paper.

Together is also able to be more agile and responsive than a traditional union, and explore more innovative methods of organising and fundraising. They’ll soon be exploring widening their coverage and making membership completely free, with the objective of unionising the un-unionised.

I’m very excited about both Together and Working America.

I hope these kinds of organisational models straddle the generational and technical divides that I referred to at the start of this article. Unions and progressive organisations need to experiment with different organisation models which are leaner, more adaptive and more responsive, and willing to make mistakes or change direction. Ironically, one of the union movement’s greatest strengths – their organisation itself – can also be a weakness.

Tim Lyons, from the ACTU, talked about this challenge in his speech at the recent ACTU organising conference.

We need to change.

We need to bust open our structures in way that makes our organising more sustainable in more places. The traditional model of trade union organisation – a union shop with a collective agreement, remains a powerful force for good. It has changed millions of workers lives for the better and it still can. We need to make that work everywhere we can, and break down barriers – within unions and between unions – to making it work

But we also need to recognise that we need different models as well – that we can’t make that traditional model work everywhere. We need to have different models of membership and organisation.

The ACTU is thinking and talking with union leaders about how we move a program of change: in traditional organising, in alternative membership and organising models, in how we do politics and influence public policy, and in how we influence capital markets and be better stewards of workers’ capital.  Your thinking and talking at this conference is an important contribution to that.

I’m heartened to hear the likes of Tim Lyons, as well as union leaders in the USA and New Zealand, willing to think differently about the future of unions. The great risk for unions, not to mention other progressive institutions, is that they will become irrelevant to everyday people.

Especially in geographic or industry areas with low or no union presence, adopting these kinds of new models of activism and membership are essential to remaining relevant, and assisting working people to win dignity at work.

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