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From meisenscher@igc.org Sat Mar 25 06:07:51 2000
Date: Wed, 22 Mar 2000 22:51:46 -0600 (CST)
From: Michael Eisenscher <meisenscher@igc.org>
Article: 91899
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Attn: Michael Eisenscher

Organized Labour 2000. Summary of January February Debate. "Dignity and Voice in a Hostile World"

By Jill Murray, 22 March 2000

Dear Network Members,

Posted below is a summary of the discussion held during January-February based on the theme "Organizing Strategies", It has been prepared by Jill Murray who currently works at the Law School, University of Melbourne,

Best wishes.

A. V. Jose

The January/February topic of the Online Conference, Organised Labour 2000, was "Organising". Organising is a multi-faceted concept. In particular, it covers the notion of the recruitment of members into an organisation at the workplace level, and thus raises questions about the ways in which such recruitment activity takes places and the factors influencing the behaviours of union officials, potential members and their employers. Organising also encompasses the ways in which unions operate to activate and empower their members.

This may raise questions about the relative powers of union officials (for example, the national office versus the workplace delegate), the degree of leadership control, the ways in which members participate and the nature of the issues dealt with by unions. We will see that the debate of the Online Conference Organised Labour 2000 touched on all elements of the concept of organising, and coalesced around three interconnected themes, which are set out below.

The debate was opened by Gay Simkin, a New Zealand activist and academic. She spoke of the strengths of occupational, as opposed to industrial, unions.

In New Zealand, occupationally-based unions of teachers (separate unions for primary and secondary teachers) have defied pressures for union mergers and the harshly deregulatory industrial relations climate of the 1990s to emerge as strong and viable representative organisations. Ms Simkin argued that the organisation of workers purely at the enterprise level would not be sufficient to provide "dignity and voice in a hostile world", which she saw as the chief function of unions. She argued that occupational unionism could provide "a counterfoil to the enterprise emphasis of global business".

Ms Simkin's opening contribution raised a number of important, interconnected issues which became the themes of the ensuing debate. The first of these themes centred on the question of union structure: how should unions be structured to attract, retain and empower members in a world in which the act of organising is increasingly difficult?

A second theme arose from Ms Simkin's assertion that occupational unions had proved successful because they met the needs and wishes of members better than industrial unions. The debate on Organising generated a wide-ranging discussion on why people join unions, and the reasons they might be reluctant to do so.

Finally, implicit in both these themes was a deeper issue: what are unions for?

This question was integral to much of the debate, as we shall see.

Before turning to a discussion of these three themes, I note that the Conference also considered issues to do with the specificity of certain national problems in the industrial relations field, and the need to attain an awareness of cross-cultural issues when making judgements about how unions should be structured, why people join them and what they are for. For example, Salihu Lukman (Nigeria) noted that "context and specificities are not universally shared". Tan Ern-Ser (Singapore) commented that it was easy to misunderstand data from another country, and that it was necessary to develop cross-cultural understanding. David Peetz (Australia) argued that while it may not be possible to transplant certain outcomes from one context to another, lessons could still be learnt from union successes in foreign countries (he gave the example of the Malaysian union NUBE, discussed further below). In response, Hank Frundt (USA) argued that particular strategies might be required in applying such lessons in States such as Guatemala and Honduras "when repression is severe".

I will now consider each of the three themes in turn.


The Conference debate about union structure focussed on the possible tensions inherent in organisations which often are both centralised and decentralised in their power structures and operations. Several USA participants were critical of the structure of US unions around the needs of what some identified as "business unionism" (for example, Jeannette Gabriel (USA) spoke of the "internal crisis of business unionism"). Union leaders in this model were at times characterised as powerful yet remote, while many saw the need to strengthen workplace organisation. For example, Guillermo Perez (USA) argued that too many US trade unions were "old-style political patronage machines" rather than "vibrant grassroots organisations". Jeannette Gabriel agreed, and stated that in some unions organisers were "fighting back against their unions and seeking to build a real union movement". Michael Eisenscher was also critical of US unions, arguing that "the life of the unions is defined by the leadership and staff not members". Linden Lewis (USA, speaking of the Caribbean) argued that centralised union leadership in the form of charismatic leaders "penalises power, practises decision-making and monopolises all forms of organisational knowledge" which can create an authoritarian environment within the union. This accorded with the views of Darien Fenton (New Zealand), who argued that workplace activism can be stifled by too many experts "who know everything and do everything" for the union members. Gay Simkin advocated a shift away from a "leadership model" of unionism.

Others argued that a properly functioning and accountable union structure was necessary to complement the work of organisers and workplace members.

There was also some consideration given to the question of union coverage.

David Peetz supported Gay Simkin's argument about occupational unionism, by noting that some of the longstanding occupational unions, such as those for police and nurses, have high density rates (in the case of some police services close to 100%). Part of the success of these unions lay, in his view, in the fact that they offer professional services, including insurance. Other contributors noted that where unions were responsible for the provision of unemployment benefits, membership was high (for example, Denmark). This phenomenon led to a discussion of the so-called Ghent systems of social insurance. It was acknowledged that where such systems did not exist, it would be difficult to achieve their implementation in the current political climate in many states.


The second theme was raised by both Gay Simkin and an early contribution from Stephen Pursey (Switzerland). Stephen Pursey asked the Conference if participants knew of any research into the reasons why workers decided not to join trade unions, specifically enquiring whether fear or intimidation at work played a part. The Conference is occurring against a backdrop of falling union membership in many developed countries, although Kate Bronfenbrenner (USA) reported that union density rates in America remained stable this year for the first time in decades of decline, and Jon Rogers (UK) reported that the decline appeared to have halted in his industrial territory (the South-eastern branch of the UK's largest union, UNISON). Others spoke of a "crisis" in unionism, for example in Australia and the USA. It was noted that privatisation and outsourcing were factors contributing to a less-favourable climate for unionising, and hence falling rates of density (eg Pravin Sinha, India and Arturo Nuero, the Philippines).

Many participants agreed that fear and intimidation did play a role in influencing some individuals' decisions to join or not to join a union, although this was a factor where the "habitat of industrial relations" (to use the late Otto Kahn-Freund's term) was important. For example, Linda Nicholas (USA) argued that people joined unions because they were afraid of what might happen to them at work if they did not. Tan Ern-Ser reported that pressure to join could also be a factor in some cases : a small minority of respondents (6%) to a Singaporean survey had stated that their decision to join a union was based on peer pressure.

David Peetz, an Australian academic with extensive experience in this field, provided a detailed response to Stephen Pursey's question about survey data on why people join trade unions. He found that "unwilling exclusion from trade unions" (that is, the proportion of those surveyed who wished to join a trade union, but for some reason could not) ranged from 1 in 7 workers to 1 in 4 or 5.

However, he cautioned that this unwilling exclusion was not necessarily a result of employer intimidation. Such intimidation was particularly difficult to show empirically, as it tended to be hidden and was difficult to unearth through research by investigators from outside the firm. However, there were indications that, in general, there had been an increase in employer antagonism to unions since the mid-1980s in Australia. David Peetz concluded that the decrease in union density was not due to a decrease in popularity of unions : rather, there seemed to be a decrease in the number of unwilling conscripts to unionism, and a greater scope for unwilling exclusion of those who wanted to join unions but could not.

Brian McArthur (USA) wrote to support the contention that "the biggest obstacle to forming a union in most jurisdictions around the globe is fear...people still lose their jobs when they try to organise". He advocated a campaign to amend labour laws as a response to this problem. Roy Adams (Canada) argued that it was not just the strictures of labour law which fed fears about joining a union, but the whole context of social norms in which such decisions were taken. He argued that freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively should be seen as fundamental human rights. Despite the growing international recognition of these rights, in reality "collective bargaining is commonly treated as an adversarial issue". What was needed was an adjustment to the social norms, possibly through widespread community action such as that seen in opposition to the World Trade Organisation. In response to this contribution, Brian McArthur replied that collective bargaining was "about power sharing and so will never be accepted as a fundamental right" : "as long as the nature of business is concerned with the maximisation of profit at any expense, it is extremely unlikely that we will see a voluntary sharing of power through the adoption of rights to collectively bargain".

A different perspective to the fall in levels of union density was suggested by other contributors who argued that falling rates of unionisation might be linked to worker satisfaction : Randy McQueen speculated that collective bargaining may have succeeded in meeting workers demands, and that this in itself was a barrier to future union growth. Linden Lewis (USA) noted that employers in Mauritius were using this argument as a basis for opposing unionisation : "enlightened" y employment practices meant, they held, there was no need for workplace representation. A number of contributors mentioned this argument, which essentially claimed that unions were irrelevant. Several participants strongly disagreed with this contention. Anne Learmonth (Australia) argued that members did not see trade unions as irrelevant but as unresponsive. Kate Bronfenbrenner (USA) responded that the so-called "new industrial relations model" (or human resources management school, as it is known in the UK and elsewhere) was not a valid lens through which to view current workplace dynamics. Union growth in the USA had been experienced in areas of particularly vulnerable workers and amongst professionals.

A fundamental difference of opinion emerged over the role of union tactics in attracting members. E Tugabiirewe (the Netherlands) argued that "the traditional confrontational and militaristic approach (of unions) is not only outdated but also a liability". Another participant noted that potential members do not like the language of "fighting", but will join to support "what's fair". By contrast, Jon Rogers (UK) argued from long-standing experience as a union official that recruitment campaigns were actively assisted by a major confrontation with the employer, as there invariably is from time to time". This view was supported by Don Sutherland (USA) who argued that organising should be based around a "hot issue" (that is, of high relevance to potential members), as well one which is meaningful and achievable. Michael Eisenscher added that while "educating and exhorting members" might lead to a temporary increase in recruitment, the most effective way to achieve real change was through "consistent and carefully developed work".

There was some discussion about the new emphasis on the so-called organising model. For example, an Australian contributor noted that the period of the various Accords (agreements between government and unions during the 1980s) led to the alienation of members from their unions, and then unions turned "in desperation to organising". This shift back to the grass-roots task of recruiting members was, in the contributor's view, at the expense of developing a broader social agenda. Guillermo Perez asked about the cost of the organising model in the American context, raising questions about its viability as the main tool for union regeneration. He argued that in a recent case in the USA, 155,000 new members had been recruited at the cost of 70 million dollars. If these figures were correct, he argued that the union movement could not afford to mobilise the large sectors of the workforce which stood outside the established union movement. Leo Casey (USA) argued that an approach to organising was only part of a broader questions - the need to think about new forms of unionism in the knowledge-based, global economy.


Leo Casey's comment leads us to the third theme which emerged during the January/February discussion. Behind issues about the structure of unions and the reasons for membership and non-membership lay a more fundamental question: what were unions for?

Gay Simkin established a benchmark answer to this question insofar as it related to members and potential members : unions provided "dignity and voice in a hostile world". While many participants appeared to regard this as a valid description of unions' roles at the workplace level, others argued that unions should look beyond the workplace for their role. An Australian participant argued that the shift to an organising model in that country had been at the expense of tackling "the labour movement's independent role in policy development". Union activism should not be limited to workplace organising, but should include "a clear social project in alliance with other forces", for example Canadian "social movement" unionism. Stephen Pursey (Switzerland) extended the discussion by enquiring whether employers saw unions as a useful partner or a nuisance, and Zvi Galor (Israel) suggested that unions should have a role in job creation, as without jobs there would be no need for unions.

The call for unions to develop beyond organising at the workplace was embraced by many participants. Paul Stowers argued for greater integration into the community : "our views have become myopic in that we have created an invisible boundary for our activities within the workplace...if growth is our aim, we must take on the bread and butter arguments of the community". Gilbert Renard agreed with Zvi Galor that unions should work to save and create jobs through engagement with programmes of education and training. In addition, they should actively work towards complex social goals such as those enshrined in international labour standards, including the abolition of the worst forms of child labour. He called for the "strengthening of the non-bargaining activities" of trade unions, and closer alliances with co-operatives and friendly societies.

L V Subramaniam (India) agreed with Renard and Galor.

Linden Lewis noted that job creation may come at a price, especially in the case of Export Processing Zones, where fundamental human rights and labour standards may be avoided to achieve a competitive advantage in trade. He argued that unions' involvement in job creation should be examined in the context of "the political economy of global capital". He also noted that where trade unions played a broader role in civil society than simply that of workplace representative, it was necessary to ensure that unions themselves were open and democratic organisations.

Several contributors, including Rob Durbridge (Australia), suggested that unions should broaden their horizons to include the political field of activity.

Satendra Prasad (the Fijian Islands) urged that participants take the Fijian experience as a lesson : Fiji unions had developed and followed through a political strategy, and now the Labour Party held power in that country.


The January/February discussion of Organising demonstrates that there are a range of approaches to some of the fundamental questions of unions' role and identity. The importance of organising was accepted by many participants, but it is clear that many see a strong role for unions beyond the workplace. It is equally clear many wish this role to develop within democratically-run unions with high levels of membership control and empowerment. The challenges facing unions were similar across the countries which participated in the discussion, even though participants were wary of drawing false conclusions from cross-cultural data.

Perhaps the most useful conclusion was that drawn by David Peetz, from his study of the Malaysian union NUBE (with over 90% rates of membership). He found that NUBE succeeded despite a hostile legal and political climate by adopting a combination of the organising and broader political strategies discussed during January/February:

  • creating effective workplace structures
  • developing a strong, successful track record
  • brinkmanship recruiting (if a worker doesn't join in the first six months then s/he is not permitted to join at all)
  • extensive involvement in education and training
  • reinforcing the benefits of membership with social activities
  • ability to shape workplace change
  • a viable political strategy

At the end of the month, several participants asked how the issues in January/February could be applied to the recruitment in the informal sector. The next report will cover the discussion on this topic which followed.

Jill Murray
Law School
University of Melbourne

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