The new frontier for worker organizing | What's Left

Labour law reform discussions continue about how to help build workplace representation for the newly identified 'precariat' – the social class of precarious workers. During these discussions, it is important for socialists to examine the structural reforms needed within unions to prioritize organizing this group.

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The rise of the precariat has occurred at the same time as corporate boards try to evade the profit drag produced by workplace democracy through a union. The use of technology and advanced management processes such as contracting-out and outsourcing has muddied the relationship between employees and their workplace.

Along with changes to the workplace, current labour laws have also constructed barriers for precarious workers to organize in contract positions and small workplaces. The labour movement has faced these legal challenges before – remember, unions used to be illegal not too long ago. Through mass action, workers were able to establish the right of their associations to be recognized and collective worker action is no less powerful today. However, it seems obvious that current models are failing in organizing in the so called “fractured” workplaces of the precariat.

If the movement is to discuss the legal framework for organizing there is a need to examine unions as institutions and not simply as groups of workers themselves. The structure of unions has been constrained by the historical development of the economy and the structure of industrial workplaces that were organized. Not surprisingly, unions’ organizing departments and the laws that regulate union certification were also structured along these historical lines.

However, it is not only the structure of the workplace that is a drag on union innovation in organizing. The orientation of “unions as institutions” to establish laws and use the law as a method of stability is also an issue. Under-utilization of the strategic use of collective worker power to demand progressive reform of the law means the movement can get constrained by those very regulations it fought so hard to set-up.

Taken together, it seems necessary to find a way to break free of the legal constraints established to regulate industrial workplace democracy to organize the precariat. And, at the same time, not demolishing those previous historical gains for industrial workers – after all, the rise of the precariat does not necessitate the death of the industrial workplace.