Transforming unions today to represent the workers of tomorrow | What's Left

Socialists understand better than most that regular people do not control or drive the current economy. Every day, social justice activists are struck with the realization that the economy is changing in a way that makes it harder to advance democratic interests. On one side, we have techno-Utopians who think App Innovation™ will foster a new, better and more efficient world. On the other side, elected officials act as cheerleaders for this economy – an economy based on exploitive precarious employment instead of democratic and sustainable regulated workplaces.

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It can be frustrating.

In the day to day struggle, the collective responsibility is to understand the political and economic challenges as they are, not only as we wish them to be. It is important to revolutionize our strategies and tactics to fit these new realities and look to institutions for ways they can be effectively retooled.

How will democratic industrial unions restructure so that they can expand into areas of worker representation where craft unionism might be more appropriate – say for representing precarious workers?

There are two possible directions to explore in answering this question. One is rooted in the structure of the workers’ association – such as workers’ action centres. The other moves in the direction of restructuring industrial unions themselves, similar to what happened when craft unionism was replaced by industrial unionism in the early 20th century.

To determine which direction will be more effective, it is important to understand the distinction between unions and non-union workers’ associations. These differences are defined by the laws that govern them, but also by their unique histories and relation to the working class. There are essential differences between associations of individual workers and industrial unions and it may not be possible to bring their purposes closer together.

Unions act the way they do as a result of their funding mechanisms and mandated responsibilities – but that is not the whole story. It is true that, if funding and state-defined responsibilities are removed then the political and social purpose of the union changes dramatically. This is easily seen as Right-to-Work legislation weakens union social activism. However, even when this happens, unions are not reduced to some sort of non-profit associations or club of individual workers. This is because the historical character of unionism is not simply as an advocate or legal support organization. Unions primarily exist to facilitate the disruption of production through their members’ collective action against capitalists as a means to advance their rights at work. Said in another way, unions – unlike all other organizations – exist to advance workplace democracy.

Unlike unions, workers’ action centres do not exist primarily to advance workplace democracy, but instead they help (usually non-union) workers actualize their rights under law. A noble and necessary mission given the low rate of unionization, but not one that easily expands to industrial-level support.

If the goal is to advance workplace democracy within the new economy, then it seems (in the current Canadian context) that the focus should be on reforming union structures. For the sake of argument, call this new extension of the union structure to represent precarious workers “Sectoral Unionism” (contrasted with Industrial Unionism or Craft Unionism).

There are two questions that face union activists:

  1. How best can “Sectoral Unionism” facilitate industrial-level action in a way that affects production?

  2. How can “Sectoral Unionism” easily build worker power (that is, self-financed) to the point where it can be effective against capital and result in advancing workplace democracy – even when the industry is spread across many workplaces?

This debate must involve both theory and the trial of that theory in everyday work. It may not be possible to get the correct structure right away, but for the movement to survive and thrive there is no other choice but to test these ideas in practice.

Follow What’s Left as we bring you the ongoing debate and report on the successes and failures of these trials.