Forms Of Solidarity: Trade Unions And Community Unionism


In the past eight years, a whole new language of union change has sprung up in English-speaking developed countries: social movement unionism, labour internationalism, union renewal, global unionism, cultures of militancy, associational unionism, organising culture, organising unions. These are words of optimism. But then there are the other words: strategic paralysis, union repositioning, union restructuring, market share. These are the words we scare ourselves with.

"Community unionism" is an odd outsider to this flurry of new language, because it has many meanings and is used in so many ways. Is it a new structure for unions? A new way of being militant? Does it describe new strategic alliances? Is it only local or can it also be international? Is it really new?

In this paper I want to argue three things. First, that community unionism is not at all new: it is the way unions organised before World War II. Rediscovering it can be very useful indeed today. Second, I want to argue that community unionism is particularly suited to our fragmenting and deregulating labour market, and the polarisation that is occurring between different types of communities.

Third, I'll be asking: what definitions, and what parts of the idea of community unionism, can be useful to Australian unions now? But a caveat: neither "unions" nor "the community" is homogeneous.

To do this, I'll draw on my Canadian and American experience, as well as what I, a very recent Australian migrant, know about recent Australian experience. The paper is not a case study per se, but does draw on specific examples.

The paper is divided into three parts:

  • The meanings of community unionism;
  • The map of types of community unionism today;
  • How can Australian unions use the idea of community unionism?

II. The Meanings Of Community Unionism

At its simplest, community unionism is a term to describe the several ways that trade unions work with communities and community groups . Simple, but not straightforward.

First, this definition includes both organised community groups, and 'communities' of interest, which are more diffuse than organisations, such as young workers, women workers, migrant workers, indigenous workers etc. Sometimes by 'community', unions mean, simply, the public at large.

Second, the community organisations come in many sizes, with different resources, both human, financial and in terms of power links.

Third, the goals, campaigns and struggles the union and the community groups work on together are also very varied.

Fourth, union-community collaboration can be initiated by one, or the other: either by the community over an issue that it sees as urgent or by the union, usually seeking strike support, help to fight against factory closings, or another industrial issue.

Finally, the alliance between unions and a community may create real changes in union structure and how a union works over the long-term. The union-community link may be as short and narrow as a campaign or as deep as an organisational merger. In most cases, though, the trade unions that have worked within a 'community unionism' framework have changed their world view from that work, and particularly, their understanding of the limits to what the union as an organisation can do on its own, and how a union exercises leadership, or draws back from leadership, within a coalition of interests.

In other words, we use community unionism to describe a whole range of alliances between union and community, and who the community is we want to link with, may also take many forms.

III. Mapping The Forms Of Community Unionism

With this definition: community unionism describes the whole series of ways that unions work with communities and community organisations over issues of interest to either or both-- we can identify a number of forms of community unionism.

At one pole is the instrumental link: a union approaches community organisations and 'the community' meaning the public, for support on specifically union issues, an important struggle, for example. It can be an organising campaign that takes in a whole small community (regional organising), support for a strike, mobilisation against an anti-union employer or the government intent on wiping out a union or, the labour movement as a whole. The dock strike comes to mind here.

A second form of union-community linkage is when union(s) and community organisations identify common specific issues: issues that should link both union members and members of community groups, and are identified as important by each. These common issues may be obtaining legislative changes around discrimination, low pay, language training rights for non-English speakers, or developing job creation strategies for particular communities and in particular industries. The job creation strategies developed in Montreal and Vancouver, in Canada, are discussed more fully below. Paid maternity leave is another case in point.

At the other pole of community unionism is the transformative link, in which unions and community organisations come together to create a new structure, because the principle of common ground they identify merits a structured and more permanent identity. . There are two types of transformative linking. The first entails creating a broadly-based social movement, like the anti-globalisation movement.

The second type of transformative link is the creation of pre-union formations that are halfway houses between the union and specific communities of vulnerable workers , such as workers in particular non-English language groups, illegal migrants (or undocumented workers), working students on campuses, or women workers. Examples of these are the Working Student Centres in Canada, workers' rights centres that dot the border of the US and Mexico, are numerous in California and New York , and the original Working Womens' Centres of the 1970s in Australia. These ‘pre-union formations’ may be storefronts that workers can come to find out about their rights at the workplace, to be put in contact with a union that might represent them, or, if they cannot be unionised, the Centre may represent their legal interests in relation to government or employer. A creative example that UNITE developed in the 1990s is discussed below.

What happens in each of these forms of community unionism ? What changes crystallise that will last beyond the specific issue? From what I have seen, no matter whether working with the community is meant to be short-term and specific, or longer-term and transformative, unions change strategy, tactics and a sense of their place in the progressive world, after they enter into these relationships. In other words, no matter how a union sees the link at the outset, community unionism broadens the ways unions work.

While examples of each of the three forms of community unionism are numerous, for the purposes of this paper I will be concentrating on the second and third forms: community-union links over specific issues of common importance; and the pre-union formation as a transformative link. The instrumental link, in which a union asks for community help for a specifically union struggle, is well enough known to allow us to move to the lesser-known varieties.

Organising Around Common Union-Community Issues

Montreal, RESO And Community-Based Job Creation Strategies

Montreal is an old industrial city, whose manufacturing boom time was the mid and late nineteenth century. By the early 1980s, it was devastated by a recession in manufacturing and primary products. Within the old industrial suburbs clustering around the port, the big nineteenth century factories began shutting down and laying off. In glass production, shoes, textiles, sugar refining, paper, tobacco, layoffs became closures. And this was even before NAFTA.

The first community to respond was in the east end of the city, Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The Committee to Save the East End was set in motion by a small businessman. He gathered in two usually rival union councils representing workers in the closed or closing factories, as well as the local credit union (caisse populaire), community organisations, and church groups. Here, the emphasis was on defense of existing jobs, rather than job creation.

By 1987, the idea of a community-based coalition to create jobs had spread to the other major old-city manufacturing district in the south west of Montreal. RESO, a cute acronym in French for 'network', took the defensive idea of saving jobs further, to job creation. The point of origin for RESO were two different types of community organisations: the century-old community aid organisations based in the catholic and protestant churches of the community, and the quite radical, federally-funded, community development organisations like Company for Young Canadians, tenants rights groups, community health clinics, and community-based debt-counselling agencies. Here in the south-west of Montreal, it was the community organisations which reached out to the unions and to business. From the outset the organisers realised that no community-based jobs coalition could go far enough without business support and considerable external funding.

Central to their strategy was the following: first, it was necessary to create jobs by returning the old factories to full operation, which might require retro-fitting. Second, a new range of jobs in the 'third sector would need to be created. Third, putting community residents into these jobs was a priority. Next, unions would have to make three sorts of sacrifices: they would have to allow community residents preferential access to the jobs; they would have to accept under-award salaries in the existing jobs; they would have to allow employment in new jobs with inferior conditions to those they had negotiated elsewhere.

For the unions involved, participation was more than controversial The issues are obvious: we want job protection and job creation, but are we willing to sacrifice seniority, to allow the development of a two-tier wage system, and to allow community people to get the jobs before our own members do? Will this not undermine union conditions everywhere?

For small business, the benefits were evident: an employed suburb meant a consuming suburb.

It quickly became evident that the coalition of unions, community organisations and small business was a necessary but insufficient precondition. Government funding was essential. Skillfully manipulating political tensions between the (state) Quebec government and the (federal) Canadian government, RESO proved astoundingly successful in cruising the several levels of government for job createion grants. In all, the coalition was successful in bringing the unemployed back into the struggle to rebuild their communities, through construction jobs, creation of community health care centres, day cares, food banks.

By the 1990s, these community job creation coalitions had spread outward in three ways. Union participation had triggered a full-scale debate in the movement in terms of opposing good employment for the unionised few to underemployment for many more. Second, the community coalitions for job creation created an umbrella organisation, bringing together more than 30 neighbourhood coalitions. Third, working with academics the 30 community coalitions created a Forum for Employment, bringing 1600 groups together.

But there was a ghost behind the scene: government funding. Because the essential factor in maintaining the link between community and the labour movement over job creation in Montreal was a continuing supply of adequate government funding. When this was withdrawn in stages during the 1990s, the transformative link between hard-hit working class suburbs and the range of neighbourhood based groups, faltered.

Pre-Union Formations

There are really two parallel sources of new organising of workers in developed countries like Australia or Canada. The first is recruitment by existing unions. The second source of new organising is workers’ associations and workers’ rights centres, racial or ethnic or linguistic community organizations, occupational defense organizations, inner-city renewal groups, all of which organize and represent workers around work and community issues, but may, or may not, see their action as a first step to bringing workers to join a union. These, collectively, are known as pre-union formations, but the title itself may be problematic, because in some cases, in the US in particular, they are really parallel workers’ organisations.

The question of individual identity and collective representation are crucial here. From the beginnings of unionism and before, union organising has been anchored in, and arisen out of, the community in which workers lived. ‘Community’ was defined traditionally by location—where you lived--, by class, by occupation or craft. Over the past 50 years however, location—the community in which you live—has become less important as a basis for organising, because people are much more mobile, they are leaving the rural communities to live in cities. But I wonder if the regional unionism experiment in mining in the Pilbarra, is not an exciting way of making place, or community, a basis for recruitment again.

In the 1990s, however, after a generation of broadening and deepening worker security, welfare gains began to be rolled back. In the fragmented, polarised, casualised labour market of today, community linkages are returning to importance. But who the community is, is being newly defined.

The new communities of identity have complex origins, but they all point to a relationship between work and the rest of life, which differs profoundly from both the pre-war and the post-war models. Many unions today have to come to grips with representing ‘communities’ whose relationship to work is problematic, negative, anxious, alienated, precarious, and mediated through not having English as their native language. In other words, it looks like the contemporary labour market.

It is by now commonplace to say that the demographic portrait of the union movement no longer reflects the demographic profile of the working class. While the percentage of unionised women workers has been steadily growing ( in 2001 women were only 3% less unionised than men in Australia), the gender-wage gap remains serious. In 1985, 44% of those aged 20-24 years old and 31% of the 15-19 year olds were unionised. Today, only 15% of the 15-24 year olds belong to a union. Worse, young workers account for only 12% of the whole union movement.

This, of course, isolates the union movement and exposes it to claims that it represents a labour aristocracy. It is in this representational vacuum that the pre-union formations flourish, and threaten to become parallel-union formations.

One interesting way to deal with that threat has been developed by UNITE in Toronto. A number of unions merged in 1995 to form UNITE. Its largest component, the ILGWU, US-based, was famous prior to 1950 as a visionary, creative organizer of women workers in sweatshop conditions. A union with old, contested links to both communists and socialists, it has been the immigrant union par excellence, and the women’s industrial union, par excellence. In Canada, however, it has not, until the 1990s, been a women’s union led by women.

By 1990, its membership in Canada had dwindled dramatically, to less than 2,000 in Ontario, where Toronto is located. This, because of manufacturing restructuring, the rise of outworking, the use of non-union contractors, and the shift of production to Mexico and the Pacific Rim. In the face of imminent extinction, the then-ILGWU’s young and creative feminist leadership refashioned the union’s whole way of working, in eight ways.

First, the union commissioned sophisticated studies of the changing structure of the global garment chain.

Second, it moved to legislative pressure to modify employment standards to protect outworkers.

Third, the union developed joint campaigns with small Canadian designers and obtained ‘incubator’ government funding for garment production to stay at home.

Fourth the union reached into the newer ethnic communities of garment workers—the Southeast Asian, Chinese, Indian subcontinent and Caribbean communities. It hired organisers speaking these languages who came from the communities and were widely respected in them. In this, the ILGWU was returning to its own origins, because at the beginning of the 20th century it had always organized with, and from, the migrant communities.

Fifth, the union created an Association of Homeworkers to represent outworkers who were not considered legally workers, and so were not protected by industrial relations law. The outworkers became ‘associate members’ of the union.

Sixth, these outworkers and the union staged outrageous, humorous, public demonstrations and street theatre which exposed the ultimate responsibilities of the big department stores and labels for the sweatshop conditions, and brought the public onside.

Seventh, through the parent UNITE, the Canadian union made links to garment workers in Mexico and Honduras working for the same retailers.

Eight, the union moved to organize salespersons in the clothing boutiques.

But there is a postscript. Late in the 1990s, the union transformed its entire internal structure into an instrument for organising. But it also realized that because the structure of production had decentralised, organising small groups of outworkers could not, alone, be a viable strategy for a small, overstretched, union. As a survival mechanism it returned to the more traditional blitz campaigns, and a much wider group of industries. Photography processing labs, retail stores, anything that moved. The blitz campaigns, immediately successful, support the slower community-based organising of outworkers, and make it financially possible.

The blitz campaigns have also created a forceful internal debate about gender and contrasting strategies for organising within UNITE-Canada. Is the US Organising Model, using in-your-face tactics, suitable for organising women from the new migrant communities? Is the community-union approach to organising, ready to work with tiny groups of invisible workers, so respectful of diversity and difference, willing to struggle for even small-scale gains in respect, more suitable in these times?

This Toronto experience may be a Canadian example of the Organising Model. But it also points to the interweaving of the organising model and community unionism.

IV. Can Australia Use This?

Let’s return to pre-and parallel-union formations. In the US, Peter Rachleff observed, “ much of the most innovative organizing prefigures new union structures: linking workplaces and communities; revolving around worker centers’. But do these pre-union formations, actually become unions? Do they recruit workers to unions?

The short answer is, in Canada groups like Rank-and-File/Au bas de l’echelle, and Workers’Information and Referral Service, do see themselves- as pre-union formations: first stops for workers who will hopefully be unionised. But hostile governments and cuts to funding have closed down many of these.

In the US, however, the relation between workers’ centres and unions is more fraught. As Mary Hollens says, There, workers centres fall into several categories. Some work closely with unions. Others reject the union movement as a labour aristocracy. Workers’ centres can’t represent workers in collective bargaining,though some do support workers in bargaining struggles.

But (this) is only as part of a larger strategy to address the broader concerns of workers in the workplace and community. Centers who do this kind of work view unionization as a tactic, not the end of workplace struggles”.

What does this tell us about workers’ centres as pre-union formations? Their dual anchorage—in the community and in the union—allows them the potential for creativity. And while a number of unionists and some academics have asked whether the workers’ centres are really hybrid community organizations, their provocative existence leads to this question: could community unions actually redefine the way unions work?

Carla Lipsig-Mumme, Director, W.A.G.E. (Centre for Research on Work And Society in the Global Era), School of Political and Social Inquiry, Monash University, Clayton, Victoria 3800.