Academic journal article Capital & Class

Imagined Solidarities: Where Is Class in Union Organising?

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Imagined Solidarities: Where Is Class in Union Organising?

Article excerpt


This paper explores the opportunities and barriers for British unions to 're-imagine solidarities' (Hyman, 1999: 94) and their 'identities' or 'strategic orientations' (Hyman, 2001: 1) in the contemporary socio-political context. It argues that, in general, the notion of class solidarity is largely absent from debates and conceptualisations about recent efforts to revive the British union movement. The paper examines reasons for this, and argues that it poses challenges and barriers for unions in establishing solidarity both within and beyond the workplace. Conceptualising comparative differences between national union movements, Hyman (2001) uses the notion of the 'geometry' of unionism to argue that unions in Europe (and perhaps more widely) have three distinctive ideological and strategic orientations: as labour market regulators (market); as vehicles of raising workers' status and promoting social justice (society); and as schools of war in class struggle (class). Whilst all unions face tensions and pressures to be active in all three directions and cannot afford to ignore any of the orientations, particular histories and social frameworks lead to different tensions emerging in different institutional contexts. Further, centrally important to Hyman's analysis is that different unions (and sometimes union movements) in different institutional contexts have had a tendency to prioritise different identities. As a consequence, Hyman (2001: 4) develops a 'geometry' of unionism that locates each of the ideologically-rooted models of union identity at each of the three vertices of an 'eternal triangle' of competing ideas, ideologies and strategies.


Importantly, the three vertices represent 'ideal types' or stylised forms of unions which are rarely, if ever, seen in practice, which led Hyman (2001: 4) to assert, 'Most union identities and ideologies are located within the triangle ... [and] in most cases, actually existing unions have tended to incline towards an often contradictory admixture of two of the three ideal types.' British unions, he argues, have historically been located on the market-class axis.

British unionism: The emergence of and challenge to market-class identity

Although it is impossible to capture in this brief summary the full range of influences on the development of a particular form of market-class identity of the British union movement, Hyman argues that there has been a tendency towards the market-class axis of the 'eternal triangle'. Specifically, the centrality of free collective bargaining has been the underpinning premise of unions' strategic orientation. This distinctive orientation of unionism emerged against a very particular socioeconomic background which is explored in detail (Hyman, 2001: 66-114), and which takes in a wide set of developments, ranging from Britain's early industrialisation, traditions of craft unionism, the rise of Labourism in the late-19th and early 20th century, the rise and fall of constitutional insurgency (primarily in the form of the emergence of syndicalist ideas within unions in the early 20th century, but also in the form of later radical assertions of class interest that were absorbed and channelled into workplace and occupational activism), the assertion and establishment of the separation of the political and industrial activities of the labour movement, the embedding of 'voluntarism' and free collective bargaining as core principles of managing relations between the state and unions, and the profound attack on all aspects of unionism under the Conservative governments of the later parts of the 20th century.

The particular development of British unionism allowed an approach to employment relations to emerge which emphasised the primacy of collective bargaining as the central mechanism for negotiating conflicts of interests between labour and capital until the ideological attacks of the 1980s. …

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