By Amanda Tattersall, Founding Director Sydney Alliance. Views are my own.
This week, unions found themselves inadvertently under attack. In the ALP’s attempt to make itself re-electable federally, unions were said to be “part of the problem.” Its true that some corrupt union leaders have done nothing to help the labour movement in recent years, but working people in this country are in real trouble if the values unions bring to our public sphere are weakened.
In every crisis there is opportunity. Instead of acting defensively, unions can use this shake-up to strengthen themselves and improve how they advance their collective aspirations for a fairer country. Community organising offers some helpful insights into what this might look like.
The concept of ‘community organising’ is often mistaken as something foreign to unionism. It’s not.
Community organising is simply the set of practices based on the best traditions of union action, combined with Catholic social teaching, Jewish self-help customs, and lessons from community development. Community organising isn’t new – it’s a lost tradition that unions would do well to reclaim as part of renewing their power, and revitalising how they are seen in the public arena.
Power means the “ability to act.” Most simply, unions are able to act in three ways:
- With the Community
Most unions are intensely familiar with their industrial power. Enterprise and industry-wide bargaining are responsible for many of the protections Australian workers enjoy. For instance, good wages, holiday leave, occupational health and safety, and long service leave.
It’s been 120 odd years since Australian unions decided that industrial power was useful but not sufficient, and they formed the Australian Labor Party (ALP) as a strategy for political power. The relationship between unions and the ALP has enhanced the conditions of workers too – Medicare, superannuation and paid parental leave were achieved when unions worked with the ALP (broadly in concert, often with a bit of confrontation, too).
Finally, Australian unions are famous for advancing the conditions of workers and residents through acting in collaboration with community organisations. The eight-hour day was won by a coalition of Irish Catholic Churches and unions in the nineteenth century. The worker’s safety movement in the 1970s was an alliance between unions and the worker’s health organisations. And of course the famous Green Bans arose from an alliance of labourers and residents. Coalitions were particularly useful when conservative governments were in office, and unions needed to influence politicians beyond the union-ALP relationship.
Yet today, all of these sources of power are in trouble.
Industrially unions represent less than 20% of the workforce. Their bargaining strategies only directly improve the conditions of a fraction of the workforce. The changes to the global economy have greatly contributed to this shift – unionised manufacturing workplaces have closed and been replaced by the import of cheap goods manufactured under poor working conditions. Over the last decade unions have sought to respond to the decline with a “shift to organising”, spending more resources on growth than ever before. Membership decline has stopped, but the figure of 20% density has only flat-lined – the trend hasn’t reversed.
Union’s political strategy – a relationship with the ALP – also has great limitations. The ALP regularly scapegoats unions as an “undemocratic force” while taking their money to help win elections. Some great reforms have come through this relationship, but the ALP frequently advances policies that are hostile to unions, like privatisation of electricity in NSW and Queensland. The ALP-union political strategy is only useful if the ALP is in government (or in contention for government). In NSW and Queensland – where the ALP is fundamentally weak, the union-ALP relationship has little impact on the experience of workers.
Community outreach strategies have also been limited. Coalitions between unions and community organisations have often been ‘letterhead coalitions’ – requests for support, rather than deep, mutual partnerships that advance a set of shared, negotiated interests. Even the majestic Your Rights at Work campaign involved unions asking others to support a union agenda – as opposed to unions using the opportunity to create a shared agenda with community organisations. In contrast, the living wage campaigns in Baltimore in the 1990s and in London in the 2000s were as much informed by Priests’ concerns at the long lines at Catholic church soup kitchens as they were the interests of union members.
Each of these approaches to union power needs a rethink if unions are to truly transform their ability to create an active and vibrant union movement and improve the living conditions for working people.
That’s where community organising comes in. Modern community organising has its roots in the 1930s in Chicago. That is where Saul Alinskyshaz2959 worked with Catholic Churches and unions to improve the lives of residents and workers living in abject poverty during the Depression.
Community organising argues that citizens’ organisations – unions, schools, community and religious organisations – are the building blocks of a democratic society. So community organisers work with these institutions to identify and develop leaders through teaching and practicing the art of relationship building. They do this because citizens’ organisations build a different kind of power in society. These organisations can build power with citizens, and in doing so they change how politics works – building a politics for the common good.
There is a vast literature on community organising. But there are a few simple ideas that apply to Australian unions right now. Many of these ideas aren’t new, some are being trialled now across the country. Indeed there are a dozens union who are currently experimenting with these practices.
Industrially, community organising emphasises the importance of developing the leadership skills of union members, and in particular, delegates. It argues that the best union organisers are the listeners, not the talkers.
Only when an organiser or delegate is eager to get to know the people that they work with and find out what worries their fellow workers can they develop a sharp sense of how to best to take public action. It is the listeners who have the skills required to become sophisticated in the tactics they deploy. Community organising then provides a framework by which they can evaluate everything they do so they can learn from their mistakes.
Politically, community organising challenges unions to take on a political role that is outside and beyond their partisan relationship with the ALP. At best that relationship is only useful half of the time. At worst, the relationship with the ALP is unequal and damaging, where unions are asked to support a party that does not provide support back. The ALP can bring out the worst in unions, asking it to provide only a small number of people to participate in “top level” decision making bodies like national executive. The ALP has been pretty averse to participatory democracy, and that culture has affected how unions operate inside the ALP. If unions really want to challenge how politics works they need strategies to bring hundreds of thousands of people into political action, and, in the process work with them to teach them about the possibilities and constraints of how power works.
In terms of member numbers, compared to the size of even small unions, political parties of all stripes are vanishingly small. Unions should realise that it is absolutely within their power to create a new political culture – but that will only happen outside the grindingly archaic, bureaucratic structures of the political parties.
When it comes to working with the community, community organising challenges unions to build relationships before they build an agenda. The Sydney Alliance teaches that you should build “power before program.” This means that it only makes sense to advocate for issues once you have built the power to potentially win them. As obvious as it sounds, this idea is completely counter-cultural to the practice of most unions and social movements. The typical strategy is that an issue needs to be found before you can build a movement of people. But that kind of organising is fundamentally temporary – once the issue moves out of public attention the movement dissipates. That kind of movement organising means that social change is dependent on the media cycle, and it tends to make organising highly reactive – its far easier to get media attention for a campaign “against” something than “for” something new.
So, community organising offers unions, and other civil society organisations, the opportunity to slow down in order to speed up. It teaches leaders to build relationships first – get to know each other, then listen in order to work out what problem is best to work on. It then says, wait again. Don’t just campaign against something, do some research together. Involve those who are affected by the problem in the process of working out what solution should be pursued. “Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.” There is an inherent dignity in providing the space for people to solve their own problems. It takes time – but in teaching more people how to lead and how to act, community organising rebuilds our democratic capacity at the same time as creating social change.
Today’s unions work in challenging times. But instead of just complaining about their poor treatment, the opportunity lies for them to reorganise themselves and their ability to act for the common good. And community organising has some pretty useful ideas in that direction.