Post-Occupy: Another Way to Do Unions

“Oakland, by acting on the premise that they have a moral right to strategic workplaces in the economy, has emerged as a leader in the Occupy movement. Their strategy, which we argue is an extension of solidarity unionism from one workplace to the entire economy, will challenge the ruling class’ monopoly on the distribution of value.” Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), 2011

Prof Derek Keenan published “Is Another Unionism Possible? Solidarity Unionism in the Industrial Workers of the World in the U.S. and Canada” in the 18th volume of WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, June 2015.

Why the study? The Starbucks Workers Union in NYC recently succeeded in organizing and changing policy by using Solidarity Unionist strategies, which were started by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, even in the face of recent unprecedented attacks on traditional unions, very few labor movement researchers have looked at Solidarity Union arguments. Given the current significant challenges to unionism, this study asks, “Is another unionism possible?”

Results of the study? Solidarity Unionism is different from traditional business/social/trade union in three general ways: (1) workers decide how to organize (rather than top-down organizing); (2) workers begin and do direct actions themselves (rather than top-down direction); (3) being a union member is not tied to an industry or workplace (rather than the opposite, which is true for all other traditional unions).

Quick summary? Using case study, historical, and interview analysis, the study identifies three general aspects of Solidarity Unionism that make it different from traditional union models. The author identifies specific strategies used by Solidarity Unionists and shows some advantages and disadvantages of Solidarity Unionism. Starbucks, Jimmy Johns, and Pizza Hut are cited as examples where Solidarity Union tactics had some success.

Take-aways?

  • U.S. unions are in a state of crisis, in part, because their top-down, paid organizer structure mirrors corporate top-down management models
  • Solidarity Unions are organized and run by workers for workers, without paid organizers (what the author calls “micro-unionism”)
  • For Solidarity Unionists, direct action, making their own decisions, etc. are values in themselves, not just means to an end (so success is defined as a process of empowerment)
  • It is possible for the Solidarity Unionist movement to be co-opted by traditional unions
  • It may be difficult to expand Solidarity Unionism because being a part requires a lot of action from members
  • Potentially, de-recognized unions can create a minority unionism using the Solidarity Unionism model.

So What?

  • With this knowledge, workers can consider alternatives to the conventional union model
  • With this knowledge, business/social/trade union officials can consider alternative approaches to organizing
  • With this knowledge, journalists can include alternative union models in their stories

Derek Keenan works at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, and is a member of the University and College Union (UCU) and the Scottish Education Workers Network. He is the winner of the Mark Young Prize for Outstanding Contribution to Research in the Field of Labour and Trade Union Studies (2012) for his Masters dissertation on solidarity unionism. His areas of research interest include alternative forms of worker organization; syndicalist and grassroots unionism; the intersection between libertarian socialist and union movements and international worker solidarity. He has presented work at the Global Labour Institute’s International Summer School and is the author of Keenan: Is Another Unionism Possible? 227 Syndicalism: An International and Historical Perspective (Zabalaza Books 2014). E-mail: derek.keenan@strath.ac.uk

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