At its heart, union organising is about conflict; a battle of wills between the employer and their workers, .
The basis of the conflict in workplaces is based around a common, universal inequality – the inequality of power between capital and labour. Simply, workers have less power than their employers, and by forming unions, they can balance the scales. That is the basis of workplace conflict: in almost every instance employers will seek to resist this balancing.
The parallels between this conflict, and the liberation conflict and insurgency of guerrillas, are strong.
An insurgency is a popular and organised uprising against the established order, with the essential elements of organisation, combined with a political agenda and education.
The tools of the insurgent are subversion and the “armed” conflict. The participants include both fighters and civilian populations who provide material and social aid. The insurgent fighters arm themselves with the materials made available to them by their enemies, relieving them of need to defend assets, fortifications, or a supply chain, and frees them to focus on offence rather than defence.
Insurgents build and maintain popular support, and must build support to achieve change and be successful.
Mao wrote (of guerilla warfare): “Because guerrilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and co-operation.” He also wrote that insurgents are like fish in the sea, indicating both that the sea is the source of great support and that the fish cannot live outside it.
Insurgencies are overtly political. Insurgents go to great lengths to make sure their fighters and their supporters are educated and thoroughly aware of the key issues at stake. More-so that fighting, this education is the key role of the insurgent: “we must patiently explain”, said Mao. Actual fighting is sporadic. (It’s worth noting that Mao also devotes a large section to the importance of “clubs and amusements”, with weekly activities – highlighting how social activities makes even insurgencies “sticky”
A crucial point in an insurgency is the notion of legitimacy; that is, who has rightful authority. Insurgents lay out specific claims and grievances against the ruling authority that undermine their legitimacy (that is, ‘subversion’). Historically, a major issue over the struggle for legitimacy is the ability of one side or the other to guarantee security.
In the union movement, we often talk about the “war on workers”.
While the analogy is problematic in some ways, I think it is useful nonetheless.
In this “workplace warfare” analogy, unions are a small force (compared to most corporate juggernauts) who typically face up against much more powerful foes. The contest between employers (and employer lobby groups) and unions can be analogous to “standard warfare” between two armies.
There is a ground war: the “fighters” comprising of HR staff and union organisers moving about the workplace. And there is the aerial war (communications on social and traditional media, TV, radio, posters in the tearoom). And every three years, there is a battle that takes place when the two sides start enterprise bargaining. Between those major battles, there are sporadic conventional engagements: the disputes at the Fair Work Commission or in the courts. There are of course additional parties to the conflict: governments, news outlets, other employers, employer groups, shareholder groups, community organisations, and so on.
Unions are at a major disadvantage the moment we fight our battle in a court or tribunal. They are, after all, the bosses courts and the bosses laws.
Against the business lobbies, it’s difficult to match the corporate sector in the aerial war (running mass media campaigns), and in many cases we are out-resourced when it comes to “conventional” conflicts (e.g. court battles).
Which is why a workplace guerrilla war strategy is (in my view) one of the best approaches to winning.
Key elements of the an insurgent workplace strategy can be seen in guerrilla strategy (based on the classic Maoist, three-phase model used by Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nugyen Giap).
Political: 1. Action among your people
Mobilisation of propaganda, motivational and organisational measures. This phase (the earliest and most basic political element of insurgent strategy) is obviously very familiar with unions, and is primarily focused on agitating within their main support base: delegates, existing members and workers. As Mao said, you need to “swim with the fish” and make sure you keep motivation and enthusiasm up amongst your people. You also use this phase to build popular “mass support” within the area you operate within. This is essential to ensure that the guerrillas can operate with the support of a friendly population, gaining supplies, weapons, intelligence and other cover.
Military: 1. Organisation and Preparation
Building cells, recruiting members, infiltrating organisations, creating front groups, spreading propaganda. Again, this phase would be familiar for unions, who in the insurgent model, invest in building delegate networks and workplace organising committees in workplaces. For ALP-affiliated unions, it can also mean organising in the party. In the Maoist approach, it also means building stockpiles of weapons, so for unions it means having proper organising systems and resources (the perennial debate within unions about membership databases) and use of organising tools (e.g. social media).
Political: 2. Action among enemy military
Subversion, proselytisation propaganda against enemy to encourage desertion, defection. For unions, this phase in the insurgency model could be conceived of a growth blitz, or expansion into a new major workplace. It can also be the phase of defending “territory”, for example, if an employer becomes hostile and runs an anti-union campaign. In this Maoist conception, the “enemy military” would be the main decision-makers with employers – the managers and executives, and HR people.
Military: 2. Guerrilla warfare
Raids, sabotage, ambushes, setting up parallel governments. In the workplace, the insurgency model would include “minor” disputes and cases taken to the Commission, as well as industrial action (both formal and informal).
Political: 3. Action among enemy’s people
Total propaganda effort to sow discontent, dissent amongst enemy population. In this phase, the union is not only a majority of the workforce, but has considerable influence and clout within the company, either formally (due to strong consultative requirements in an EBA) or due to informal power and influence.
Military: 3. Conventional warfare
Regular formations and maneuver. For Mao, this is where the guerrilla forces become so large, the conflict ceases being guerrilla war and becomes conventional war between two regular, standing professional armies.
In this conception, regular “warfare” can be considered the legal battles that happen between a union’s lawyers and industrial staff vs the employer’s lawyers. For unions, this is the riskiest type of conflict to engage in, mainly because it is rare for the terrain to be favourable to unions – the laws are, after all, the bosses’ laws, and large employers especially will typically be able to “outgun” unions. The logistical resources required to maintain “conventional” war are also very expensive. However, there are some instances where the power imbalance between an employer and union are minimal (enough).
Both Mao and Che’s Guerrilla War books are practical handbooks for both strategy and tactics. While not everything has a workplace parallel, there are many that do.
“We must not attack strong positions”: Crucial to guerrilla strategy is the understanding that the insurgency is much weaker than its foe, and will almost always lose a standard engagement. In union terms, this tactic reminds us that we cannot afford to fight a battle that we know we will lose.
“We must organise the masses and unite with them”: This tactic tells insurgents that victory is only possible through building mass support, and that this support provides a whole range of advantages: “transport, assistance to wounded, intelligence, disruption of the enemy’s position, etc” while isolating the enemy. The insurgent union adopting this tactic would only “give battle” in places where the “masses are organised”; i.e. if you have low density, “don’t fight”.
Mao also describes ideal guerrilla unit organisation, with small groups of 5-8 people giving best maneuverability and mobility, the importance of regular communication between units, and the importance of both practical (military) and political training/education.
By understanding workplace conflict between bosses and workers as an insurgency or guerrilla conflict, we can start to understand why some tactics and strategies succeed and others fail.
A union that fights a guerrilla war fights over the long term. Setbacks, like losses in the FWC or court battles are short-term setbacks, but for an insurgent-union are not fatal.
With the guerrilla strategy, we’re not fighting a conventional war that relies on conventional victories. So long as we keep our political and membership engagement efforts, we can continue fighting indefinitely.