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A new deal for unions?

At the TUC Congress this year, the CWU put forward a motion calling for a 'new model of trade unionism' which is a significant marker for the trade union movement as David Arnold's recent blog noted.  With the 150th year of the TUC next year, it would be a further marker of intent if this motion was built upon to offer a model of trade unionism that went beyond current and established assumptions.

Andreas Schleicher (Head of OECD) sums up the problem in this way: 'societies get the trade unions they deserve.'  This is a useful check for the trade union movement.  Is there some way in which the movement is mirroring the very conditions of its crisis? How do trade unions operate that is so different to the general conditions of the economy around them? How do their strategies differ?

There are, potentially, some distinctly uncomfortable truths here. Do trade unions operate like businesses? Do they compete with other trade union businesses? Do they co-operate like some businesses when it suits them? Do they have organised representation of their interests as business organisations? Do they have marketing departments, sorry communications? Do they lobby for their vested interests?

There are two great differences.  The historical mission to build a socially just society that recognises the worth of workers in every way. And the belief that the purpose of work is itself to make society better – by building, educating, entertaining, nursing, provision of services and so forth.

But these are not uncontested notions. Some would argue that vested interests are part and parcel of trade unionism and that trade unions operate just like any other organisational interest.

How far do we need to go to reinvent the trade union model?

How do we get a grip on 'a new model for trade unionism'? Sometimes, it's good to use a different sort of lens in analysing a problem – at least, it may offer potentially insightful points on the way, if not a whole new paradigm.  One way is to consider the idea of a strategic action field as proposed by Neil Fligstein and Doug McAdam (2012).  

In this, one would describe trade unions and their field of activity and inter-relations (including employers and government).   The field is made up of established incumbents, who follow and understand the particular rules of the game (e.g. block voting!), and power holders who use resources to their benefit and who contest with employers and/or government over resources (pay, facilities, bargaining). Everybody knows where they stand, why and what to do next.

But, for Fligstein and McAdam, a strategic action field has one of three states. They say it is either emergent, stable or in crisis. A stable field would have little critical turbulence, an understanding of the direction of travel and a shared understanding of those in the field (employers, government and so forth) of what needs to be done (not without argument and struggle!).  It would also have fairly consistent and reliable relations with government who frame action fields via legislation and who monitor areas of field activity (Certification Officer, ACAS, CAC).  

Do we know which state we are in right not?  It would be tempting to see us as stable, but given the reality of where we are within the movement (membership and collective bargaining decline, changing and restrictive legislation), we might agree that this is a field in crisis. 

What do we do about it? Can you avert a crisis becoming a catastrophe?

Fligstein and McAdam argue that success in an action field is met by securing a new framework of meaning that the incumbents buy into (for our field, this would include employers). This would usually be prompted by the rise of new incumbents - who bring a new way of looking at things to bear (an example, from another action field, would be the Civil Rights Movement in the USA and the impact that had in the action field of Race Relations). But it could also be a present incumbent (such as the TUC) revising the frames of reference, assumptions and current practices, and devising a new way of looking at things. It would then need to convince all of the other incumbents to share that understanding. But nobody said it would be easy did they?

What could a new frame of reference be based on?

Well, the one crucial area the CWU motion does not address is that of developing a research base that is focused on the structural and social issues that trade unions face, which would be distinct from their obvious and immediate interests (organisation, collective bargaining, recruitment). Understanding the wider terms of the debate are, perhaps, more crucial than at any other time in trade union history and, more to the point, engaging with them. Explicitly understanding globalisation, the network society, social movements, practice theory, should, arguably, be a part of the narrative of trade unions as much as their organisational ambitions.

The argument for this is that the knowledge economy and views about it shape current thinking. The notion that knowledge is power or that social worth is now directed at 'knowledge' and not 'the making' or 'the serving' or 'the helping' of others and things appears to have been almost ignored in union quarters. At best, we think of the impact on our current concerns, robots, digital technology, driverless vehicles. That is not a strategy for dealing with new forms of knowledge formation, areas of research, social implications, but one that, at best, will accommodate them.

A new alliance around knowledge, research and development?

We may need a new alliance around knowledge and, more to the point, a new operational focus around research and development. Unlike most firms and organisations in the UK economy, who are also fairly uninterested in research and development, trade unions need to take the lead. We need to present a different view of society based on our research and knowledge interests, not mirror the bleak landscapes we often find ourselves in (there are oases of opportunity of course that we can indulge ourselves in).

Capitalism may be as virulent as it ever was but it is also more differentiated, more diffuse in tone, and more appealing to a society based on individualisation. Failing to understand those changes and the congruent appeal of professional societies and associations (which do fit the individualisation hypothesis) is, arguably, why trade unions are being left behind. So, it's not because they don't organise effectively or recruit effectively or do good things.

The CWU motion is a great first step in progressing the movement, but we may need to go further and embrace a new frame of reference for trade unions in the UK. For example, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Germany offers such a research model supported by the DGB (German TUC). This research organisation offers not only links to current trade union research institutions but offers papers and original research by and for the movement. The model is not so different from the position of Unions 21 which could be an engine of change in a much more contested action field (uncoordinated liberal market economy).