· home· members · projects · contact · join · support us ·

· about new unionism ·

Paradoxically, New Unionism can trace its roots back more than 100 years. First came the new unionism movement in the U.K., starting around the mid-1880s. It was during this period that craft-based structures gave way to industrial unions. A new wave of working class activists demanded organisational forms that were more inclusive, democratic and visionary. In the strikes and campaigns that followed, the trade union movement as we know it today was born. However, the heyday was over by 1914. A rising tide of nationalism and militarism heralded the beginning of World War One.

Even more damaging, some would argue, was 'the great split' between communists and social democrats that began when the Comintern laid down the 'Twenty One Conditions' in 1920 (details). It was a split that was to undermine the workers' movement for the rest of the century, and still affects unions in some countries today.

Similar shifts towards industrial unionism occurred in most countries as they industrialised. However, the rise of unionism around the world was often met with a corresponding rise in authoritarian nationalism. By the time the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, this conflict had become both lethal and transnational. Nowhere was the tragedy of the great split more murderous than in the 1930s. At one stage, Stalin described fascism and social democracy as "twin brothers". Workplaces all around the world experienced bitter divisions over leadership, and fascism flourished along the faultlines.

Rather than developing union strategy themselves, members were soon reduced to having to choose between pre-defined options. Even today, some unions still declare themselves to be (a priori) revolutionary, party-aligned or apolitical. Workers join if they accept the union line, rather than playing their due role in defining it.

After World War Two, the governments of many rich countries invited unions to become "social partners" in the huge task of reconstruction. Other countries sought to achieve the same thing by yoking unions directly to the State. Still others did their brutal best to ensure no compromise with labor was necessary. However, a clear pattern has emerged. A new wave of unionism tends to arise wherever social dialogue or totalitarianism start to break down.

Thus we have 'novo sindicalismo' emerging in Brazil in the late 1970s. Similar developments (sometimes referred to as 'social movement unionism') occurred in South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines and Venezuela. And in the US and UK of the 1970s and 1980s, activists and academics called quite specifically for new unionism -- a revival linked to the democratisation of work -- to counter the rise of neo-liberalism. Most recently, unions have been radically transforming themselves in many Middle eastern countries, following the 'Arab Spring' of 2010 to 2015. Unions in central and northern Europe have also begun to rebuild their organizing capacity, as social partnership models are undermined by globalisation.

What ties all these strands together?

Old-school "business unionism" tends to restrict itself to the negotiation of wages and conditions. In doing so, it usually relies on fear and anger as the basis for organizing. As we have shown, the natural constituency for this approach tends to sit at about 20% of the workforce. By contrast, the various approaches we have identified above as new unionism seek to identify members' broader hopes and aspirations. Members are regarded as citizens, producers and consumers, rather than employees. This is about work and those peform it, rather than just labor. This does not automatically lead to broader social goals, but it provides the necessary context in which these can be developed. As one network member put it: "This is about us, not them". Of course new unionism includes negotiating for fair pay and decent work, but it refuses to stop there. Environmental issues, social justice, economic sustainability and corporate behaviour are all issues that working people have taken on board. The spectacular rise of NGOs in the last 35 years shows this very clearly.

Furthermore, over the last decade the nature of employment itself has changed, with the rise of a global 'precariat'. Business unions see this as a threat to their viability and argue for a return to the 'labourism' of the industrial age. New unions see it as a challenge and promote new forms of organizing to integrate such workers. Along the way, new unionism inevitably finds itself questioning the master-servant relationship at work. Just as members have a democratic right to control their own union, they also want a voice in the workplace. Studies by network members have mapped this in different countries and have also shown where the points of resistance lie. It is an issue that divides both labor and management,

Over the past 15 years there has been increasing discussion about new forms of global unionism. Much of this has taken place in the senior echelons of union federation management. "What we have today won't get the job done. We need a new trade union internationalism," said ITUC General Secretary (now Director-General of the ILO) Guy Ryder back in 2008. Many others have said similar things. However, almost 70 years after the formation of GATT, unions still remain unsure on how to proceed. Corporations and finance have long since gone global (as has the labor market itself) but most unions still negotiate on a localised basis. Tentative experiments have taken place; new structures have been bolted onto old ones; alliances have come and gone; branding has been updated; academics have politely crossed swords behind user-pays web portals... but very little of this has filtered back to union members. The result is that labour cannot negotiate with capital face-to-face. Those with the most at stake - working people themselves - have no effective global bargaining power. They are restricted to struggling with local employers and national governments; while both of the latter are increasingly bound by trade deals and global agreements.

We want to change all of this. Many members of the network are working at the sharp end of these issues, be it in the workplace, the union movement and/or academia. Together we have identified four key principles (see below) which we think form a necessary response. In building a network around these principles, rather than formal policies, we encourage members to develop their own way forward. We support each other, we share ideas and experience, but the direction is and always should be developed by the membership.


· four key principles ·

    Organizing internationally for workplace democracy
    and a new creativity in the union movement.

1. Organizing
The union movement has long debated "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 other workers are convinced that they, too, should join. While they're there, they can 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 practicable. It lives and breathes at work, in the form of the membership, and it acts consciously through elected representatives. Union staff are employed just to support this group and to deliver skills and resources as required.

In most unions - in theory at least - the argument for the organizing model has been the one gaining ground. However, the expected outcome has not materialised. All of a sudden nothing happened. In most rich countries at least, union membership numbers have continued to decline. This has led many unions to become introspective. Bureaucratic cultures are now clearly out of favour, among members at least. Scholarly policy documents? Optional retirement schemes? Sure, but we still haven't worked out how to organize seasonal, contract and temporary workers. And why do young people still feel alienated from unions? What can we do to rebuild influence in social policy?

Recently there has been a subtle shift in these kinds of union deliberation. Organizing, yes. But organizing for what?

2. Workplace Democracy
Some unions have been discussing models of workplace reform for years. Others have taken this one step further, with an aim to democratising economics itself, via the production process. Others have more cautiously promoted new structures for "social dialogue". More and more, unions are being required by their members to broaden the agenda beyond pay bargaining. But is engaging with employers over issues such as workplace culture, organisational reform and sectoral restructuring some kind of collaboration (in the negative sense of the word)? In the 1990s words like "partnership" and "labor-management co-operation" were at the centre of long and fruitless debates. While this went on, studies continued to show that working people want a strong and independent collective voice in the workplace.

This coincides with changes in production that also make this necessary -- changes that require management to engage the intelligence (not just the time and 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 have been raised in the course of all this. But for working people themselves the answer continues to be straightforward: we want more influence. Studies have shown that this does not mean "sweetheart deals", nor finely worded but toothless consultation clauses. In fact, partnership agreements and boardroom invitations seem to have amounted to very little except in the cases where they helped to foster workplace democracy. (In some cases they clearly worked against it). Unions who saw this, and who acted upon it strategically, have started to buzz. In pressing for workplace democracy, they are issuing a fundamental challenge to the master- servant relationship. In such unions workplace reps are 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 worth organizing for.

3. Internationalism
The world's 'labor market has been effectively globalised, along with finance and trade. Ironically, the workforce has not been granted the same rights. Can wage levels be maintained when the effective labour pool has swelled by the joint populations of China, Russia, and India (among others)? What use is shop floor militancy if it simply drives production offshore? If we get a pay rise here, do we offer a competitive advantage to companies there (ie in companies that pay their workers less)? Unions are 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 working around selected projects. Unions are learning to negotiate international framework agreements, ethical guidelines, and/or global codes of conduct. More importantly, 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 in the process? How many are even aware that they are part of the "ITUC" - an organisation that can legitimately 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 would like you to join.

4. Creative thinking
It is the creative combination of organizing and workplace democracy that leads activists in the direction of new unionism. However, in reasserting themselves as a creative social force, unions face major obstacles. The influence of the 1920s split and the Cold War still linger, with the direction of unionism (particularly in developing countries) still often skewed by historical factors. Many of our 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 example, where even the most basic organizing can lead to workers being murdered with impunity?

Despite all this, many of unionism's difficulties can be generalised, and creative thinking can be applied in almost any context.

As suggested in the model at left, too much emphasis on engagement alone (as in the quadrant A) does not lead to Workplace Democracy. Generally, it leads to the union being co-opted. One finds words like "cosying up" or "selling out" being bandied about by sour members. Deals appear for ratification 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 the employer agendas. The union feels that its role is to maintain this 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 doesn't bother listening to the union reps. I mean, why would 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 reps 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. Willingly or not, they learn to accept this and listen. Membership rises and productivity increases. The organisation succeeds (there is a huge weight of evidence to support this) in the way its competition does not.

Whether this process might best be described as evolution or revolution is a question for another day. And frankly, that day has passed.