Capital O organising

by Christopher Warren

THE UNION ORGANISING brand seems set to get a major makeover with news that Hollywood star James Franco is directing and starring in the film of John Steinbeck’s labour novel In Dubious Battle, a book described by former organiser Barack Obama as one of his favourites. Matching the star quality with substance was the news that the Tunisian trade union centre has shared in the Nobel Peace Prize for its work as part of the civil society ‘quartet’ organising for and then sustaining democratic change in Tunisia.

From Hollywood to Oslo, the meme of unions organising to challenge power appears to be shaking off the almost three decades of deliberate marginalisation and, at times, criminalisation. And at the same time – and for the first time – after all the attempts to keep unions locked in a twentieth-century analogue world, organising is starting to build unions in the new digital economy in both Australia and the United States.

It must be a bit frustrating to those who’ve worked so hard to undermine the union brand that the work of unions is being celebrated. And while conservatives from governments to shock jocks continue to dish the dirt, the recent political experience of Australia tells us the road to fixing the system lies through Australia’s unions. The ability of unions to organise through politics to defeat WorkChoices in 2007 and to strike back against the dismantling of public services in Queensland and Victoria are, by any standard, substantial, systemic victories.

The scale of the victories is reflected in the response of conservatives: the system must be broken. After we’ve trammelled unions up with ever-greater legal restrictions and seen their workplace density halve, how can they continue to demand to shape the workplace in the interests of working people? But it’s no accident that the focus on the revival of unions is on the way unions organise. If change is to be delivered through democratic action – as it historically has been – the success of Australia’s unions to adapt through the embrace of organising demonstrates that the system can work.

CAPITAL O ORGANISING has become something of a buzzword for what those in the ‘union business’ call the organising model. To put it in words for the twenty-first century, it’s like Uber, for workers.

Confusion is understandable. The federal government’s $61 million Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption has meandered into some strange places, but probably the strangest was its brief journey into constructing a conspiracy out of the philosophy of union organising in the middle of 2015.

The Royal Commission in Australia quickly moved back to the nineteenth century, equating union action with extortion and blackmail, after its attempt to create a conspiracy of corruption out of a handful of cases of white-collar fraud all but collapsed. Despite the publicity of the circus that was the Health Services Union, it seems this was primarily a fraud against unions. The Royal Commission lagged the HSU itself in identifying and prosecuting the serious fraud by a handful of individuals.

The collapse of the blackmail case against CFMEU organiser John Lomax in Canberra –apparently for the crime of ‘extorting’ higher wages – shows the difficulty the Commission has had in finding genuine criminal behaviour in the real work of unions: the thousands and thousands of collective agreements negotiated each year.

Despite the hopes of its founders, there’s no clear evidence that the Royal Commission has succeeded in dirtying up unions. A recent poll by Essential Media Communications found that, over the lifetime of the Commission, there had been no shift in attitudes to unions. How important are unions? Total who thought it important: 62 per cent – on par with the 61 per cent at the beginning of the Commission. Would workers be better off if unions were stronger? Yes: 45 per cent, the same as about two years ago.

Still, it was not wrong to identify organising as the significant shift in the way unions operate in Australia. While there have been plenty of glass-half-empty analyses of what all this means for unions, there’s enough evidence to start thinking that this large generational shift in how unions operate has left us with a glass that’s half full.

The debate about long-term union trends starts from a simple premise: size matters. It’s no secret that the proportion of the Australian workforce who are union members declined dramatically over the twenty years between the 1980–81 recession and the early years of this century. In that time, the proportion of union members in the workforce fell from about half to less than a fifth. Of course, the density figures based on surveying by the Australian Bureau of Statistics are not the same as absolute numbers. The workforce has grown in that time and union membership has stabilised at between 1.7 million and 1.78 million.

Nonetheless, the most recent (or 2014 figures) showing density at 15 per cent are concerning, but the continued strength of membership shows that size is not the only thing that matters in assessing the ability of unions to influence the world of work.

Of course, unions are not on their own. All the mass institutions of the twentieth century have shrunk over the last thirty years. Regular church attendance has declined by a similar proportion (although over a longer time frame, since the 1950s). Newspaper circulation has fallen from about a hundred and sixty copies per thousand of the population to about half that. Australian political parties as mass organisations have all but collapsed.

These figures will be no surprise to anyone who’s read Robert Putnam’s turn-of-the-century book Bowling Alone (Simon & Schuster, 2000), about the decline of participation in civil society – particularly in the mass civil society of the twentieth century. Of course, coincidence doesn’t mean correlation. Each institution has its own reason for decline.

Part of the decline in union membership has been the shift in the Australian economy from manufacturing to services. Clearly, the most recent drop is a specific reflection of the crisis in manufacturing, such as the slow-motion closure of the Australian car industry.

More broadly, the decline in union membership has reflected the changes in workplace structure, which, in turn, was built on two emerging ideological tools in managerial thinking. The first was business process re-engineering: the view that efficiency in process was the key to business efficiency and the way any business worked could be taken apart and put back together, with significant cost savings. As work was re-engineered, it was not just unions that got smaller – workplaces got smaller, through automation, casualisation, privatisation and contracting out.

Workplace efficiency is not solely an ideological tool; there’s little doubt that workers generally welcome and respect ways to work more effectively. Walk into any workplace and the workers will, themselves, have strong views on how things could be done better. And, from the point of view of employees, it’s always better to see things done differently than to endure the traditional business cost-cutting through skimping and doing more with less.

The demand for efficiency in process fed the other major managerial innovation of the ’80s: the malign concept of shareholder value. Now, thirty years on, the idea that returning value to shareholders is the sole goal and determinant of business is so universal that it is taken as a given. But its intellectual roots date back not much further than the early 1980s. If you want to see how intellectually thin its theoretical roots are, it’s worth going back to the early work of its proponents, such as Northwestern University’s Alfred Rappaport on the academic side or Jack Welch on the business side. Despite generations of work on the justification for giving profit-making organisations the protection of corporate status in the first place, shareholder proponents simply asserted the circular proposition that if an organisation had a for-profit structure, then making profit must be its sole purpose. But business academics pride themselves on the practicality of their work, not its intellectual consistency. And valuing shareholders by prioritising capital provided the intellectual underpinning for a generational shift in share from labour to capital.

IN AUSTRALIA DURING the 1980s, these ideologies crashed into the Prices and Incomes Accord – a co-operation agreement between unions and government. From 1986, the regular renegotiations of the Accord reflected attempts to respond to this ideological challenge, through negotiations around workplace ‘inefficiencies’ in exchange for wage rises in 1986–87; restructuring work between 1988 and 1991 to reflect both formal and informal skills and remove ‘unnecessary’ demarcations; and, finally, through the system that has, in one form or another, endured to today: collective bargaining with individual companies, underpinned by increasingly universal minimum wages and conditions through an award system.

The response of the conservative political parties was two-fold: first, in the name of deregulation, they tightened the regulation of unions. This continues to animate conservative governments at both the state and federal level. It was the focus of what little industrial legislation the Abbott government tried to pass, and is central to the terms of reference of the Royal Commission. From my experience, I urge any business leader who complains about red tape to do a spell as a union official to manage the compliance requirements.

Second, in an approach almost unique to Australia, governments have sought to encourage the use of statutory individual contracts outside the award or collective agreement system, known as Australian Workplace Agreements. There are mixed views about their effectiveness, and while individual contracts are common in Australia, the use of statutory contracts to replace collective agreements or award coverage has been less effective than its supporters would have hoped.

But it supported what Griffith University’s David Peetz described in his book Unions in a Contrary World (Cambridge University Press, 1998) as ‘the institutional break’ – a paradigm shift in how employers, businesses and their intellectual and political representatives came to see unions and their role in society. In government this played itself out in rendering closed shop arrangements illegal. Among employers, this played itself out in corporate strategies to marginalise, exclude and ultimately eliminate unions.

Here, employers drew heavily on the US experience, where anti-unionism is big business. If you want to get some sense of how entrenched it is in the US, there’s a whole framework of consultants, lawyers and advisers to help you. There are even web pages like Unionfacts.com to help you do it yourself. The former director of the ACTU Organising Centre, Paul Goulter, has described the employer messaging as two-handed: the good guy approach (I can be trusted, you don’t need unions, you can rely on the company to do the right thing); and the realpolitik (I can’t be beaten). All employers who successfully de-unionise use both approaches, although at the beginning they’ll stress the first, only emphasising the second when it is too true for a union to be able to do anything about it.

Peetz estimates that a majority of the decline in union membership is due to this ‘institutional break’, and most of that was due to the abolition of the closed shop. So in the late 1990s, it was not fanciful to imagine that unions would vanish. In less than a decade, membership density had fallen by almost half and more than one union was close to the edge of bankruptcy.

BUT THROUGH ORGANISING, unions in Australia have stabilised membership numbers over the past decade. It’s how they’ve driven real wage rises. It’s how they fought WorkChoices, how they beat the Campbell Newman government and, right now, how they’re defending penalty rates.

Unions have always had organisers and have always been a vehicle for working people to build a carapace of power within their workplace. However, over the course of the twentieth century, unions came to be seen – and to position themselves – as more a service organisation or a form of insurance at work.

Organising, on the other hand, involves unions using the commitment and energy of their members to do things for themselves. Unions cease to think of themselves as a service organisation and think of themselves more with what they started as – a social movement. It is not, of course, an absolute dichotomy, but there has been a fundamental movement-wide rethink of their role and purpose.

It meant freeing up the major resource that unions still had – hundreds of thousands of members who retained a commitment to working collectively. As a result, union activism has resumed the role as the major contributor to what Putnam describes as ‘social capital’ – the investment that people make in our society by doing something. And through their unions, tens of thousands of Australians now undertake some sort of activity every year. This is not done the way it used to be – through strikes to win change or to protect working conditions – but through collective action that taps into this resource. Just like the new sharing platforms, but for workers!

There are, of course, long traditions of organising within Australia. But just as union-busting tactics came largely from the US, the modern permeation of organising into the Australian movement over the last two decades has also come largely from the experiences of the US. There, capital O organising usually means a campaign to unionise non-union workplaces. In half of all states (and in the major union states), a unionised workplace equates to effective compulsory unionism so that all workers working under a collective agreement are either members or, if not, are required to pay a bargaining fee, effectively to access the union bargain premium.

But the techniques of organising – identifying the issues that matter, gathering activists around those issues and using those activists to build a campaign – and the campaign itself are as important as the result. They derive in equal measure from the history of the International Workers of the World – Wobblies, who were also a small but active presence in Australia – through the Congress of Industrial Organizations to the ideas of community organising for disadvantaged communities. The gospel is perhaps best embodied in Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals (Random House, 1971). These ideas went mainstream when Barack Obama used the principles from his community organising background to shape his 2008 election win.

In Australia, organising has rebuilt union power to re-organise workers in partially organised workplaces, often with a pre-existing collective agreement. Here, the success has usually been more effective in creating activists than in building a broad pool of members. But it has demonstrated that effective activists can be as significant in shaping power in a workplace as a relatively inactive closed shop.

This has given organising in Australia a more existential tinge than in the US. In Australia, it has been more successful in empowering people to do something union – hand out flyers, talk to other workers, organise solidarity actions – than in reinstating total unionism.

DESPITE CONSOLIDATION AND loss of size, unions remain diverse. Not all branches or divisions, or even all unions, have embraced these principles fully and some refuse to acknowledge them at all. But if they’re not all of anything, they are part of everything that almost every union does – whether they acknowledge it or not.

Of course, unions continue to provide an important ‘service’. If you work in a unionised workplace, it’s a clear and understandable business proposition. In exchange for membership and payment of fees, workers are better off over time as union work increases the amount that goes to working people. This means there is always a transactional element in the relation between a union and its members, even if it’s never articulated. Annual union fees vary, but, in Australia, they are around 1 per cent of the average pay – around $600 for most workers. Repeated surveys both in Australia and overseas indicate that a union member gets four things from this: a union premium in their pay (although it’s not clear exactly how much this is in Australia); better working conditions; better job security both formally (that is, no unfair dismissals) and informally (that is, protection against bullying and harassment); and a greater say over how work is organised.

In a decentralised wages system like the US, the structure is binary – you either work in a union workplace with all these benefits, or you don’t. However, despite the shift to collective agreements as the main vehicle for wages and conditions in the early 1990s, Australia retains a relatively centralised wages system.

Collective bargaining held out the promise to employers of greater flexibility at work (and just about every working person knows what flexibility means). However, it has proved itself remarkably commodified. There are plenty of exceptions, but the general rule remains true: conditions within most collective agreements are not that different from what they were under the old National Wage Case and awards system that prevailed prior to 1993. Most of the loss of privileges at work – work intensification, changes to processes that deskill workers and unpaid overtime – have been outside the formal system.

And over the past quarter of a century, full-time real wages for most workers in Australia – in sharp contradistinction to the United States – have increased, in many cases substantially.

So although union membership has tumbled to about 17 per cent of the workforce, unions retain a significant role in shaping wages and conditions for most workers either through union-negotiated collective agreements or under the relevant award. An analysis by the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2010, after the Fair Work Act, estimated that 43 per cent of people worked under (usually union-negotiated) collective agreements and about 15 per cent worked under the relevant award, most of them seeming to be minimum-wage employees. This is not significantly different to award-only employment in the 1980s.

It’s frustrating for unions and their members to see what are characterised as free riders getting the benefits of the work of unions. It also makes it harder to measure the union premium in Australia – because so much of the benefits flow to workers, whether members or not. But the strength of collective bargaining has reflected the application of organising principles to this most basic of union tasks: to push up wages. It’s also been critical to defeating the institutional break by raising the cost of the break. Of course, a lot of collective agreements are rolled over continuously, but almost all now have a layer of organising, of mobilising the workers affected by the agreement, to underpin the negotiating process.

IT WAS ODD to see conservative lawyers in the Royal Commission taking unions to task for negotiating agreements without enough workplace organising to underpin it. At times, it sounded like Trotskyist entryism had penetrated the most reactionary corners of the Sydney Bar. Many of the organising tactics in a collective agreement are based less on industrial action than on Alinsky’s central rule: ‘Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules.’ Despite the repeated demonisation of unions, employers have increasingly accepted that it’s hard to both de-unionise and sustain their public profile as good citizens and employers of choice, and collective agreement negotiations are the key opportunity to put this to the test.

There’s a strong argument that, in retrospect, the 1998 maritime stoppages (strike or lockout, take your pick) raised the price for de-unionisation for all employers and substantially slowed the process that had been accelerating through the 1990s. It drew a line, although that line is a bit like the trenches across northern France in World War I – move forward a couple of hundred metres here, and back a few more somewhere else, and a lot of blood gets spilled on the way.

The second key application of organising has been to organise workers and supporters into mass campaigns to achieve mass change in the way people work or, more usually in Australia, to prevent detrimental change. In fact, these campaigns – the Your Rights at Work campaign or the campaign against the public service cuts at the state level – have been the pivotal political campaigns of this century. They’ve changed governments, changed policies and changed the ways politics works.

There remains a lively debate (including within trade unions) as to whether the anti-WorkChoices campaign was won at an elite level through paid advertising or on the ground through organised campaigns, particularly in marginal electorates. But both the advertising campaign and the on-the-ground organising fed off one simple truth: community concerns about WorkChoices were about relative power, much more than they were about wages and conditions. This reflected the simple fact that people have a profound sense of where they sit at work, and how contingent their right is to have some control over their working life and how it impinges on their personal life. Everyone who works for someone else understands just how much choice they truly have – or don’t have.

That’s why the ACTU ads were so successful – they touched that sore spot. The mother called into work without notice who lacked childcare, or the father forced to work on Saturdays and give up coaching his son’s football team. These ads, coupled with true stories, promoted into the media linked the WorkChoices changes with workplace uncertainty and killed it as a policy.

This was classic Alinsky: pick the target, freeze it, personalise it and polarise it.

Below the media radar, organisers and organising teams worked to build community opposition in targeted marginal electorates through door-knocking, street stalls and local community events. It is difficult to test what difference the electoral teams made, although ACTU research after the event estimated that the swing against the government was about 2 per cent higher in electorates with Your Rights at Work organisers on the ground.

The 2014 and 2015 state election campaigns in Victoria, Queensland and NSW showed again both the potential and the limits of these campaigns. In all states, public service cuts and privatisations were key issues involving first-term conservative governments. There was much in common in the union-backed organising campaigns: detailed research to shape the campaign around the issues of concern to the community, public advertising and door-to-door teams of union members – particularly uniformed members of fire brigades or ambulance.

In both Victoria and Queensland, the campaigns were successful in defeating first-term governments – in Queensland, a government that held office with a record margin. Yet in NSW, the campaign achieved minimal traction. There’s a live debate among unions right now about whether this demonstrates the limitations of organising campaigns or the need for campaigns to get everything right – and have a bit of luck as well – to succeed.

These campaigns have also shaped campaigns from the right. The campaigns against the mining tax and the carbon price seemed to almost deliberately ape the Rights at Work campaign – advertisements featuring ‘real’ people, check; colourful rallies, check. Yet by embracing only the simulacrum of the campaign without the on-the-ground mobilisation of communities, it created a change but left little behind it.

On the union side, organising on this mass scale has meant that, while membership of the movement is not as large as it was, when it comes to achieving change, mass is not the only thing that matters.

There are, however, real limitations on mass campaigns. They all – and certainly all the successful ones – have been both specifically about working conditions and profoundly defensive. They’ve been about stopping or reversing bad things, not winning something better.

That’s partly a factor of having a national conservative government. Under the Rudd and Gillard governments, individual unions applied organising principles to win significant policy changes that affected their members, such as the Transport Workers’ Union’s Safe Rates campaign to seek regulation to limit the speed truck drivers could be required to travel in their deliveries, or the maritime unions’ campaign to support use of Australian ships in the coastal trade.

That’s why the current campaign being run by US unions to win a $15 minimum wage is so exciting. It’s putting together community and industrial organising to achieve a historic shift in share between labour and capital. It’s mobilising hundreds and thousands of working people to do something union, and there’s already evidence of that mobilisation feeding into progressive political campaigns and pressuring both sides of politics to embrace the change. The success of the minimum wage ballot initiatives in the 2014 US elections – including in four deeply Republican states – at the moment of a Republican electoral landslide in the US Senate, demonstrates how this has cut through into the political mainstream.

This is taking the potential of organising to the next level and, if unions continue to entrench the strategy of community building and organising, they have the potential to be as politically and socially significant in the twenty-first century as they were in the twentieth.

With or without James Franco.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 51: Fixing the System © Copyright Griffith University & the author.