The power of the ‘walkthrough’ has a mythic status among union officials because the opportunity they present is so rare. As a organiser for the Federal Public Service union, one of the most valued activities I could undertake was the ‘walkthrough’. This was, literally, walking through a workplace, going from worker to worker, and having conversations. You asked if they were a union member, and if they weren’t — you asked them to join.
During the Howard government, walking through federal public sector agencies became almost impossible — the restrictions on the ‘right of entry’ for union organisers were so strong, that you could only enter a workplace at specific times, only meet workers at specific places, and only go from the front door to those places by specific routes, with an escort who ensured no inadvertent conversation with workers took place.
‘Right of entry’ to a workplace means just that, the right to physically enter and be present in a workplace during work time, by virtue of being a union employee. A union delegate, being an employee of the workplace itself, already had the right to be there. Despite being a ‘right’ — entry by union organisers to workplaces is highly regulated. It would be hard to find a better case of ‘red tape’ bureaucratic restrictions on the efficient conduct of business than Australia’s current right of entry laws. As with Australia’s ‘right to protected industrial action’, right of entry is another example of how defining something as a ‘right’ opens the door to all kinds of restrictions on how the right is exercised.
The cliched image of the union organiser is someone shouting through a loud speaker at a mass meeting. However, most union organising is direct contact with individuals. This reflects the principle that it is ultimately an individual choice to join your union. The social and industrial norm of the ‘closed shop’ — with the expectation that ‘we’re all in the union here’ — has gone from most Australian workplaces. However the popular representations of unionism assume an already-existing collectivity among workers. But why does a collectivity form? How do you know it exists when you see it, or know when you are part of it yourself? When progressives want to identify and build new collectivities — we must think about the nature of the collective experience. Karl Marx, when looking for an example of a collectivity that did not organise in its own interests, notoriously described French peasants as forming a class ‘much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes’. They were ‘incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name’.
Collectivity is not merely a political or sociological proposition — every experience of collectivity is ‘new’ for workers who have not seen themselves as part of a collective before, and every collective needs hope in the future and trust in others. This sense of collective hope and trust does not exist simply for itself, its purpose must be the struggle to build a better life. Members must have hope that acting collectively will make a difference, and trust in each other that solidarity will be reciprocated. While this essay will use unionism, an ‘old collectivity’ as its starting point, ‘new collectivities’, in what ever form they take, will need to produce the experience of collectivity.
The language of hope and trust is not easily deployed in the prosaic world of industrial relations. In explaining what unions actually do for workers unfamiliar with them, unionists often reach for parallels such as ‘insurance’ for why you need to join even if you have no immediate problems. While unions do offer insurance services — they would not be a very attractive ‘product’ if that was all they offered.
Every collectivity is new for someone who has not experienced it. Unionism is an ‘experience good’, by which we mean a collective experience of solidarity with others. Unionism needs hope that improvements to people’s lives can be achieved through collective efforts, and trust that others will have a similar commitment. Solidarity is a theory of commitment to others, without expecting anything in return, but with an expectation that reciprocity may arise in the future. Solidarity is a theory of hope and trust.
Employers understand that right of entry restrictions ensure workers are blocked from having collective experiences that are independent from their employment relationship. The lack of union membership in most workplaces in Australia, combined with the spread of precarious employment arrangements — means that in practice a union organiser is the seed bearer of collectivity in the workplace. Keeping workers from forming collectivities means keeping union organisers out. A fundamental flaw in contemporary Australian unionism is that too often, if the organisers aren’t there — neither is the union. Getting rid of restrictions around right of entry are a priority for the ACTU’s ‘Change the rules’ campaign. However the framing of organising around the entry of organisers into workplaces risks making the physical presence of organisers the primary means by which workplace collectivity is produced. It reinforces the notion that unionism, and collectivity itself, is external and alien to the workplace. ‘The union’ only exists when a paid organiser is present, and having conversations with workers.
Creating opportunities for conversations is the object of daily business of union organisers. You are trained in ‘frameworks’ for listening (ideally you should listen for 70% of the conversation), and handling objections (ranging from the ideological objections to unionism, to concerns about membership fee costs). The organiser’s purpose for these conversations is not just learning what the problems are for a worker or a workplace, but to raise ‘hope’ that acting together collectively will actually make a difference. The future-orientated quality of collective hope is tricky to convey, even if the organiser has a collection of ‘hopeful’ stories about workers in the past acting collectively to achieve results. That the collectivity the worker is being asked by the organiser to join exists at all (beyond a union membership form) needs to be taken on trust.
The sweet spot for union organisers is having union delegates within the workplace recruiting members when you are not present. However the low union membership in Australia suggests that this does not happen often enough. The fear of being sacked if word gets back to your employer that you are asking others to join a union is very real — even if it is notionally illegal. Low membership becomes self-reinforcing: with fewer people as union members, fewer people will even think of joining when they start a new job, the more alienated they become from unionism.
So what is the purpose of collectivity? As an organiser with a public sector union, it is fair to say that while workers in our sector had their serious issues, they were not doing badly on pay and conditions compared to others in the workforce. A common objection to joining a union from non-members was that, while unions were needed by people ‘doing badly’, for people ‘doing OK’ membership was an unnecessary expense.
These non members were actually acknowledging what might be called a ‘logic of solidarity’: they could envisage solidarity under certain circumstances, just not right now! Their hopes were invested within the present structures and expectations of their workplace, and they trusted that these would deliver what they wanted from their working lives. Their response is understandable, and justifiable, if union organisations primarily present themselves as about fixing problems (or ‘servicing’ in union parlance). If you don’t have a problem (or more to the point, you don’t see how this organisation called a union is relevant for your problem) why would you join?
This view that unions are only necessary when something is going wrong is unfortunately reinforced by union practice. Unions with members spread across a range of workplaces, must employ a ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ approach in deciding which workplace gets the most attention. On one level it is inevitable, and appropriate, that unions should respond to problems when they arise. However it fortifies the idea that unions only show up for the ‘bad times’ — that they are only around if there is a problem. The ‘unions = problems’ assumption can be flipped around into ‘no union = no problem’ (a perspective employers are keen to cultivate).
The system of enterprise bargaining, in which unions show up as ‘bargaining agents’ every few years, reinforces this view. Unions often gain a short-term increase in membership during a bargaining campaign, especially when industrial action is anticipated. However outside the bargaining period there seems little reason to remain a member on an ongoing basis, and the same unions often get a flood of resignations.
Prior to the 2008 global financial crisis, when union organisers discussed (or griped) about the problems of recruitment, one view was that union membership was low because times were ‘too good’. Real wages were increasing, and most people’s conditions — protected by Enterprise Bargaining Agreements and the remnants of the Award system — were OK. Even the WorkChoices legislation went to tremendous efforts to ensure that people’s current conditions remained intact at the time it passed into law. Once people started experiencing bad times, we organisers and officials would tell each other, they would see the value of unions.
However while the history of the growth of unions includes stories of struggles against adversity, the historical successes of unions have also involved workers acting to capitalise on the ‘good times’. The legendary first struggle of Australian labour history was the battle by Melbourne stonemasons for the eight hour day in the 1850s. This did not occur because the stone masonry business was doing badly. Rather the stonemasons saw how well the industry was doing, and decided collectively to capitalise upon this by making far stronger demands than they otherwise would have. To take an overseas example, while the iconic ‘sit-down’ strikes that unionised the US auto industry in the 1930s took place in the wake of the Great Depression, they actually occurred during a period of (albeit slow) economic recovery.
In short, the idea that solidarity follows catastrophe can be misleading. Acting collectively needs a sense of hope that things were going to improve, rather than the solidarity of everybody ‘clinging to the life raft’ for fear of drowning.
Unions, being organisations that ultimately rely on the resources of their members, will be weakened to the extent that their members are hurting economically. Historian Richard J Evans, in examining the origins of the Third Reich, points out that a key reason why the left parties failed in fighting the rise of Hitler was that their supporters, being workers, were far more likely to have been thrown out of work by the Depression. This did not make them less ‘left wing’ (or more likely to vote for Hitler), but it did mean that the day to day needs of survival for themselves and their families inevitably sapped the time, energy and resources that were available for political battles.
The point of retelling this history is not say that there is no point in making criticisms of capitalism. The current state of the world economic system shows that we do not have enough of such criticism — or considerations of alternatives to that system. Rather that progressives, looking to build a new collective outlook among workers, should not confuse that with simply creating a ‘shopping list’ of current system failures. People in their own lives are pretty clear on what their problems are, but you haven’t made the case for your alternative by simply repeating the obvious ‘bad news’.
In the case of unions, organisers who are skilled in listing reasons ‘why the boss is bad’ are not actually making the case for a collective union response. Without an accompanying sense of hope, these are just as easily reasons for despair.
Collectivities have always depended on individuals placing hope and trust in others. Collectivity can form among any group of workers, even if not for industrial or political purposes. Even workers who are notionally isolated from each other, such as ‘gig economy’ food delivery riders, still set up Facebook groups to share information on the best times and locations to get the best work. New collectivities are created regardless of any formal activity by the institutional collective organisations such as unions.
However if people in new collectivities are going to experience the solidarity of commitment to others for the achievement of common goals, they need hope and trust in others whom they have not met, and likely will never meet. They need a collective identity of comradeship with strangers.
One way to think of collective identity is a concept used in the study of nationalism by the late theorist Benedict Anderson. He described nations as imagined communities, which did not mean he thought nations were ‘made up’. Rather nations are ‘imagined’ because, while most nationals never meet each other, they still have an image of their own communion. They are ‘communities’ because, regardless of internal inequalities and exploitation, the nation is always conceived of as a deep horizontal comradeship.
Applying the concept of an imagined community to the collective labour movement you get to solidarity as an expression of the collective interests of workers as workers. Jennifer Gordon, a US Professor of immigration and labor law, sets out an explicit parallel between status people gain from nation state citizenship, with the ‘labour citizenship’ workers gain from being union members:
You gain the status of labor citizenship if you become part of a union, just as you gain national citizenship by being admitted to membership in a country. In the union setting, that status entitles members to a package of rights exclusively available to insiders and binds them to a set of responsibilities that outsiders do not bear, as nation-state citizenship does.
Labour citizenship means that by joining a workers organisation, and participating in its decision making processes, members can achieve their collective goals of improving wages, working conditions, and the dignity of work. However, the collective experience also forges identity as workers, and through that solidarity with others. Members stand in solidarity with their fellow labour citizens, not just in their current workplaces, but united in their communion with other union members elsewhere. The challenge for unions is to expand solidarity, so that more outsiders become insiders, and can both share and expand the hopes of solidarity.
The sociologist Ghassan Hage has described societies in modern nation states as mechanisms for the distribution of hope, therefore we should think of citizenship as creating ‘hoping subjects’. Hope,from this perspective, is a distributional struggle, about ‘optimism, fear, desire, wishing, wanting, dreaming, waiting and confidence’. These ‘express in one way or another modes in which human beings relate to their future’.
The struggle of trade unionism historically is the struggle to redistribute hope to previously excluded groups in society. The lower classes would become part of what Hage calls ‘the circle of what each nation defined as its own version of civilised human society’. Historically of course this distribution ‘civilisational hope’ has had a racial dimension, hope was for Europeans only. The history of the Australian trade union movement can parallel this with its early support for the White Australia Policy — hope was for white workers alone. Hope was also for male workers — as demonstrated by various measures to exclude women from work. Marriage bars, for example, ensured that female hope for the future was invested in finding a husband.
The oldest struggle is the struggle for a future orientated hope, rather than merely a passive and disengaged hope that the economic system will eventually deliver. When people join, or form, a new collectivity, they are investing in hope for life — what Hage calls an ‘investment in social reality’. Such hope is an active engagement with that reality, rather than a passive disengagement — waiting for the capitalist society we live in to produce and distribute the upward mobility that we need. Capitalist societies have a deep inequality in their distribution of hope, and when such inequality reaches an extreme, certain groups are not offered any hope at all.
It is through collectivity and solidarity that people have maintained the power to hope differently even if such ‘different’ hoping is marginal. The struggle over what constitutes social hope is the struggle that every new collectivity must take up. The production and distribution of that social hope can only come from the trust that others, including others you haven’t met and will never meet, will support you and you will support them.
So the ‘old struggle’ for a better life, and a greater share of the wealth created by labour, will only form a ‘new collectivity’ when that collectivity is able to create or embody the radical hope in the imagined community of solidarity: the trust in reciprocity from others.
Radical criticism is necessary, but insufficient, if those making the critique cannot offer a path forward to radically redistribute social hope through trust and solidarity. Material criticisms of everyday life are not enough while future orientated hope is confined and diminished. Whatever new collectivities are identified, they cannot exist unless those proclaiming them have a strategy to create and cultivate collective experiences of solidarity invested with hope, that build collective trust.
The trade union form has historically been the way for people as workers to redistribute hope. For new collectivities the task of organising will be the production of hopeful experiences of solidarity, to generate the radical possibility of a better collective future.