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On the side of the Good? An Introduction to A New Theory of Industrial Relations by Connor Cradden

‘Trade unions are extraordinary and essential vehicles for the pursuit of basic human rights, but collective bargaining is not the best available way to organise the routine participation of workers in the governance of work - not because it brings too much democracy to the workplace, but because it does not bring enough.’ (Pg.12-13)

Connor Cradden’s book is important. It tests our thinking about the role of trade unions, about what they want as a movement, and what their place and purpose really is in the sphere of industrial relations, but also in wider society.

I want to introduce the freshness of thinking that this work contains, the provocations and challenges, and so, hopefully, stir debate. I will focus on issues that could affect the role and purpose of trade unions. I will avoid the complexity and caveats that Cradden makes in order to simplify and clarify the key points for trade unionists. I will also not contest Cradden’s claims here for, as he says, they are relatively untested, but there is clearly room for a bigger debate.

The opening of the book directly challenges those who see the trade union movement as an instrument for radical change. And not because of any utopian or revolutionary aim that a trade union might have, but because of the way trade unions see collective bargaining. Cradden argues that collective bargaining restricts trade unions to an oddly passive part in the governance of work (what he sees more broadly as the control and management of practices in the workplace), but it also keeps them in the sort of contestation of power that employers not only understand, but also endorse.

Collective bargaining pits trade union interests against  employer interests on issues which have major effects on the employer’s place in the market. But it also places the trade union in a position which parks all ‘market’ responsibility and accountability to the employer.

As employers, on the whole, follow the neoliberal view of society that believes that societies are made up of self interested individuals, or institutions, who contract their labour to an employer voluntarily, they happily accept this ‘pluralist’ position (that we each and all have vested interests).

But, positioning trade unions as bodies with vested interests, above all, entails that they will be subject to criticism from other vested interests (employers and/or government) and viewed neutrally or negatively by others, particularly the public and media.

Cradden’s charge, therefore, is directed at the very strategic principles of trade unions. He wants to insert a new strategic purpose of ‘legitimacy’ which he takes from the work of Jurgen Habermas.

Habermas proposes that all communication assumes an ideal speech situation in which we expect others to tell the truth as far as they know it, to talk about possible actions or behaviour, and to be sincere. When these three aspects are striven for, legitimate rule and the legitimate use of power is endorsed by those who agree to that rule and those subject to that power.

 Take a current counter-example. Donald Trump distorts all three aspects and gains power. But he and his administration are suspected of concealing evidence, of corruption, and deceit. Trump represents a move away from democratic and communicative behaviour. It is not, though, legitimate authority, and therefore is subject to continual criticism, challenges, and can secure only instrumental allegiances at best.

Changing the trade union approach to seeking ‘legitimacy’ would change the purpose of what a trade union does and its role in the workplace. It would shift, Cradden’s argument runs, the fundamental aims of trade unions away from the futile contestation of power to a narrative of ‘legitimacy’ and would set out ‘the better argument’. It would seek to be a part of the governance of work and not a bystander with its own vested interests.

Trade unions would need to change their assumptions about potential members, as well as collective bargaining. For collective bargaining is tied into a particular theatre of the workplace and a form of activism that would no longer be the key focus of strategy.

Trade unions would need to better understand what workers think of their employment and practices, but also what they think of the area of the market they are in. Both areas of concern (or ‘frames of reference’) provide the motivations and justifications for worker views on their actions and intentions in the workplace, and, crucially, what capacity they think they may have to do things differently.

By researching what frames of reference workers draw on opens a completely different approach to recruitment and ideas around organised membership.

Unions21 have embarked on a roughly comparable exercise in regard to the category of young workers. What it suggests (through Cradden’s lens) is that young workers have a neutral view of the market and a neutral view of the workplace. The workplace and the market are seen as areas of opportunity and risk. So, when there are issues at work, they take flight rather than fight precisely because they see those areas of concern as ‘neutral’ or lacking any positive (worthwhile) or negative (resistance) frames of reference.

The challenges that Cradden’s work gives to General Secretaries and senior staff to mull over can be given in three questions:

(1) Does collective bargaining obstruct trade unions from being more effective because the aim is to secure vested interests, not legitimacy?

(2) Does the profile of trade unions suffer from being associated with ‘problems’ rather than ‘the better argument’?

(3) Do strategies for the recruitment of members suffer from being too related to instrumental purposes (whether individual protection or political leverage) and not about the meaning and governance of work?