Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Backward March of Labour Halted? or, What Is to Be Done with 'Union Organising'? the Cases of Britain and the USA

Academic journal article Capital & Class

The Backward March of Labour Halted? or, What Is to Be Done with 'Union Organising'? the Cases of Britain and the USA

Article excerpt

Introduction

'Union organising' (1) as a quasi-distinct form of praxis of worker representation and mobilisation has become dominant among most unions in both Britain and the USA. But the results of 'union organising' have, to date, been disappointing to say the least. There has been no return to the former days--some thirty to forty years ago--of far greater influence, strength and vitality of unions and union movements. In both countries--if a direct, causal link can be made between the two--union organising has merely managed the decline. At best, it has helped slow down and bottom it out in terms of both density and absolute membership (when used as a cipher for overall union strength). In Britain, union density continued its downward trend, reaching 28 per cent in 2007 and 27.4 per cent in both 2008 and 2009, having previously been at 31.4 per cent in 1996 (Achur, 2010; Barratt, 2009) and 55 per cent in 1979. In the USA, after decades of continual decline from a high of roughly 35 per cent in the mid-1950s, density increased from 12.0 per cent in 2006 to 12.1 per cent in 2007, and again to 12.4 per cent in 2008 before slipping back to 12.3 per cent in 2009 (US Department of Labor 2008, 2009, 2010). In both countries, the situation for union density in the private sector is even graver. In Britain, this fell from 16.1 per cent in 2007 to 15.5 per cent in 2008 and to 15.1 per cent in 2009 (Barratt, 2009) and rose from just 7.5 per cent to 7.6 per cent in the USA from 2007 to 2008, bur then fell to 7.2 per cent in 2009 (US Department of Labor 2008, 2009, 2010).

No matter its limitations and contradictions, union organising represents the most serious and sustained move by unions and union movements to become masters of their own destinies, since the late-1970s in the UK and perhaps as far back as the 1950s in the USA, with regard to reversing the decline in their fortunes. Even if much less onerous measures and timescales for making judgements are used to assess union organising, there is still some dismay at the paucity of progress to date. One more lenient measure, for example, would be to return to the levels of membership, power and influence of the late-1990s over a five- or ten-year period. This would mean, for example, in the case of the tangible measure of union membership, a return in Britain to 8m members (as opposed to the actual 7.5m in 2009) and in the USA to 16.5m (as opposed to the actual 15.4m in 2009). Whilst membership is a simple method of measurement, here it conveys the sense of what would need to be achieved in and by the institutions, and the processes and outcomes of labour unionism on a range of measures of vitality. Of course, it necessarily remains unknown just how 'bad' or how much 'worse' the situation would have been for both national union movements without union organising. But the same is not true of whether union organising may have become an impediment to the emergence and implementation of other, possibly more effective, strategies of renewal and revitalisation. This is because it is evident that a mass resurgence of grassroots activism or a 'challenge from below'--as occurred in both countries in the late-1960s and early 1970s--was not even a dim prospect.

Nonetheless, union organising is highly likely to continue as the major strategy of most unions because it is more or less the only meaningful, conscious strategy they have to hand. At one level, this is incontestable, because union organising is for many, when set against business unionism and union servicing, a refraction of the soul and raison d'etre of labour unionism (see Fiorito and Jarley, 2008). At another level, the simultaneous strength and weakness of union organising is that it is both conceptually and politically ambiguous and broad. The effect of this is that it can be used for both--for want of better terminology--militant and moderate ends, and for participative and bureaucratic means (see Fiorito et al. …

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