My Resoc Interview
By Peter Hall-jones at Oct 26, 2009
At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what you reject, but I wonder what you are for? What institutions do you want that you think will be better than what we have, for the economy, polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you think is central to have vision for?
The French revolution launched the project of democratisation in society and politics, however, when all was said and done, the revolutionaries left economics in private control. To those of us who believe that politics and economics are deeply intertwined, this means that the democratisation process remains very much unfinished business.
The New Unionists of the late 19th century saw this. They struggled to broaden the base of the labour movement as a platform for much deeper changes. Unfortunately, World War One and the subsequent age of ideology intervened. When the '21 conditions' were accepted by the Comintern in 1920, the struggle to democratize economics gave way to a long, drawn out turf war between labour factions. Communists, social democrats and idealists fought it out in every arena and forum imaginable. Only when the Cold War started to wind down did unions start turning back to their more radical democratic roots.
The New Unionism Network, of which I am a member, is in some ways a revival of this pre-WWI spirit. It's a network made up of union workers, activists and academics who support union organizing for workplace democracy. This struggle takes the locus of change out of the armchair and the HQ meeting room and situates it wherever work occurs. The big difference between this and the earlier movement is that today, this means working across borders. And that, in turn, requires every bit of innovation (Web 2.0 etc) and creative thinking that members can muster.
The earlier New Unionists were part of a shift from craft-based collectivity to broader industrial solidarity. Similarly, today's new unionism is developing around the basis of work, rather than commodified labour. Twentieth century 'labourism' led to rights and regulations being developed around a single, standard mode of employment. This created a 'race to the bottom', as capital encouraged the development of a global 'precariat'. Meanwhile, legislation/analysis treated care workers and own-account workers as somehow peripheral. Women as workers, in particular, were systematically hidden in this process. Forced onto the sidelines by Thatcher and Reagan, some unions fell for this "labourist" model, and sought to organize only those workers who were engaged according to the declining standard model. A narrow, quasi-commercial strategy - 'business unionism' - was the result. Effectively, this was an attempt to turn a rout into a retreat. It led to 30 years of labour movement demoralisation and decline.
Unions are waking up to this. Globally speaking, union decline ended about ten years ago. Since about 1997, membership has increased in more countries than it has decreased. Far more importantly, in most countries, working people are now the dominant players in both production and consumption. We need to consider what this means. Because of this, workers' democratic instincts are being felt in both supply and demand-side economics. Following the Cold War, the Co-Operative and Fair Trade movements have both taken off. While unions were systematically marginalised, there was exponential growth in the NGO movement. Building on 'social partnership' models, working people won deep change in the political economics of South Africa, Latin America and Ireland. There were experiments combining organizing and partnership approaches in the UK and USA. Again and again, researchers demonstrated workers' desire for a genuine collective voice in production. Meanwhile, management theorists showed an objective need to extend employee engagement. The strongest argument against all this - the last of the great ideologies - imploded last year. This was the belief that markets, not people, should control economics. Finally, with the financial crisis, this central tenet of neo-liberalism has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
Where to now? Economics cannot be democratized from above, by socio-political regulation. We have repeatedly seen that the dominant current flows in the opposite direction. If the process of democratization is to be sustainable, economics must be reined in by those with access to the everyday switches and levers. We need democracy in the workplace (including an end to the feudal master-servant relationship) if we are to steer economics beyond private ends. I believe that this is the key to achieving human sustainability: the struggle to democratize work is part of a rejuvenated struggle to democratize economics.
You are at home and you get an email that says a new organization is trying to form, internationally, federating national chapters, etc. It asks you to join the effort. Can you imagine plausible conditions under which you would say, yes, I will give my energies to making it happen along with the rest of you who are already involved? If so, what are those conditions? Or - do you think instead that regardless of the content of the agenda and make up of the participants, the idea can't be worthy, now,or perhaps ever. If so, why?
As globalisation continues, organisations naturally start thinking beyond national borders. Nowhere is the need clearer, and yet progress slower, than in the global union movement. How many years have multinationals been employing across borders? They have outsourced manufacturing and support services almost at will. Where regulation was in the way, deregulation soon followed. Multinationals are constantly reconfiguring their supply sources and their global supply chains. Logically, one would think that the counter-balancing force in this should be globally-organized unions. And indeed, such bodies do exist. There are eleven global union federations and (arguably) two international bodies. Yet only relatively recently have some of them started bargaining collectively with multinational employers. And even there, few would claim that the resulting 'framework agreements' are anything more than a first step.
In unionism, we are talking about by far the largest democratic force the world has ever seen. Its leaders have been preaching labour internationalism for almost a century. So why has progress towards internationalism been so slow? In my opinion, the disjunct is caused by the fact that global labour organisations have yet to establish a functional relationship with the members themselves. Representative democracy just can't be made to work through a dense cloud of proxies.
It's not a small task. How is the ITUC, for instance, to maintain any kind of meaningful relationship with its 170 million members? Until now, it has claimed to do so through its affiliates. Nobody believes this, least of all the leaders of the global federations themselves. However, the social networking tools of Web 2.0 now offer workers and their global unions incredible new opportunities. Freely available, such tools can be configured to offer the first practical means for deliberative democracy and participatory decision-making in the international movement.
Going back to your question, I believe the missing step is to develop collective forms which can maximise the benefit of these new tools. Keep an eye on the new democratic networks and "global alliances" which have been springing up recently. Over the last 5 years the global movement has been growing, experimenting, and diversifying. They are listening to change. In this, they need every bit of support and encouragement we can give them.
It is not just unions that have been rather sluggish in this respect. By and large, the challenge of social networking is being studiously ignored by most organisations in both private and public sectors. However, there has been an underlying shift in production which unions could do well to learn from. The end of the 20th century saw a move towards a mode in which value is being defined by the customer. This is further extended by attempts to increase employee engagement, especially at the points closest to production. As a result, working people now fully expect to be heard. Innumerable organisations, parties, work teams, clubs, networks, committees, businesses and marketing agencies are constantly seeking their input. In terms of your question, the issue today is not whether one should get involved, but how to govern all the involvement that is required. Perhaps the challenge for Resoc is to help us to see where we are headed, rather than trying to contrive a steering mechanism.
With the underlying shift in production has come a deeper shift from hierarchies to networks; from policy to principles; from accountability to consultation; from representation to deliberation. It is this democratization which is starting to rewire economics, whether ideologues like it or not. Some unions have seen how this fits their members democratic aspirations. It is these which are starting to play a conscious role in the process of democratizing work. Our data suggests that these unions are experiencing both growth and renewal.
Do you think efforts to organize movements, projects, and our own organizations should embody the seeds of the future in the present? If not, why? If yes, can you say what, very roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an organization you would favor?
Until fairly recently, global unionism languished in a dysfunctional tangle of bureaucratism, procedure and formalistic meetings. Some of the key figures (then and now) have sought to change this. One can appreciate their difficulty. At one end of the system, workers who elect stewards/delegates. These people then elect committee reps, who appoint staff, who support leaders, who go to international meetings, where they elect reps, who employ staff, who may or may not negotiate for workers. And even then, the process is not so simple. Factionalism can get in the way at any point, along with self-interested careerism, political interference, imposed bureaucratism, and/or personality conflicts. The one constant in all this is the fact that members are almost never involved at global level. Until fairly recently there have been plausible excuses for this. But again, the revolution in communications technology means that only inertia can prevent more direct participatory forms from emerging. Representative democracy is no longer enough. That bears repeating. Representative democracy is no longer enough. In fact, let's be honest, it never was.
Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others did not answer it?
I can speak as a member of the New Unionism Network, but I can't speak for it. We are agreed on four principles (workplace democracy, internationalism, organizing and creativity), but we don't attempt to extrapolate any kind of tactics or policy from these. Day-to-day judgment calls are made in conjunction with members and work-colleagues, rather than drawing on organizational formulae and manuals. This happens at the place of work; out in the real world, in real time.
Network members are accountable to a set of principles (ie though shared dialogue) rather than to a formal hierarchy. There will be members who disagree with things I have said above. That is fine. We will talk. I will learn something. On the other side of the spectrum lurks the feudal 'master-servant' relationship, which still underpins production in most parts of the world. It requires a sort of split personality from workers. I think this is captured rather neatly in the bizarre phrase "work/life balance". Work is a part of life! We need to be demanding full recognition of this, with all the implications that follow, rather than trying to conceptually separate and 'balance' the two.
It can be difficult for unionists and working people to articulate their aspirations, especially where the structures in which they operate are representative (ie requiring them to speak for others) and/or hierarchical (requiring them to be accountable to standards they didn't negotiate). If we feel constrained about what we can or cannot say, then perhaps we have found an ideal place to begin.
One last thing. I'd like to sincerely thank Resoc's organizers. This has been an intriguing exercise, and so far I think you have done a brilliant job. You are helping a disparate group -- vociferous folk with strong convictions and divergent analyses -- to think collectively out loud. Whatever comes next, we have now seen that this can be done. Trying to build an organizational analog may prove a red herring. I think you ought to take a moment to ask whether you have already succeeded.