Social and civic elements were crucial in my view to the early success of unions to become legitimate, lawful organisations (afterall – we were illegal in the 1800s).
In this period, unions were involved in, established or ran numerous social and civic institutions, including schools and training shops, meal clubs, friendly societies, sports clubs, newspaper and radio stations, funeral clubs and theatre groups. Unions and unionism were integrated into the community, not just the workplace.
Furthermore, deep civic participation by unions built a culture of collectivism and collective action that permeated through geographies and across industries. This assisted in the establishment of class-consciousness, and the building of collective identities for working people and their communities.
By the 1970s, more or less, the deep social elements of unionism were in decline, and to my knowledge by the mid 2000s only a few social/collective activities that were explicitly “union” remained.
Firstly, we need to recognise that social legitimacy is always contested – and unions must always remain dynamic organisations capable of genuinely representing working people, not just in workplaces but in civil society too.
Secondly, we should re-capture our historic role and mission to be active beyond narrow workplace matters.
What is the benefit of civic activities for unions now, when unions face growth, recruitment and retention challenges, a hostile government and ruthless businesses?
In my view:
- the more union members engage with their unions in multiple forums and environments, the more likely they will be to remain members, even in adverse situations;
- the more potential members see unions engaged in positive, pro-social, constructive activities, the more likely they will be to be positive towards unions and be open to recruitment conversations.
Lots of unions have social elements to their activities – and in fact, lots of delegates socialise with each other.
But I think as a movement we need to consciously reintroduce strong social and civic elements to how we operate.
Here’s some ideas:
(More) Social events
As I noted, many unions have social events, but having a deliberate and planned social calendar for your union’s members, delegates and volunteer officers.
These events should have the explicit aim of building stronger connections (and hence solidarity) between your members and activists.
Furthermore, they should be regular and smaller – and not always tied to an explicit organising or campaign push. The point is to have a place/event where people can safely interact with each other, without some kind of transaction.
It’s worth noting that neo-liberalism has created a loneliness epidemic
. The atomisation of workers and casualisation erodes the natural social bonds created in workplaces.
The business sector already knows this. Which is why there’s a growing cottage industry of charities and for-profit groups creating “meet-ups”. Many of these revolve around micro-industries, and are explicitly networking events.
But unions can do something more through building social connections: strengthen class solidarity.
Mass social events
The union movement in most states and territories still holds Union Picnic Days (in fact, we re-launched our Union Picnic Day in the ACT a few years ago, with a large Labour Day Festival
But I think we can do better.
We need to structure our events to be large, welcoming and inclusive – and to not be a financial drain on the movement.
The point of holding these mass-events is to open the movement to non-members (as well as existing members) and draw them in. To re-normalise interactions and socialising in an explicitly union-space.
There is a powerful psychological effect that comes with a mass-solidarity event like a rally. And a similar effect comes when there are large numbers of people socialising together, for example at a festival. (This is a feature of large music festivals for example.)
Small groups are the basis of workplace organising. In the Organising Works framework, they’re Workplace Organising Committees (WOCs) – small groups of 5-10 workplace activists, led by a delegate and supported by an organiser.
There’s a lot of research (e.g. Peetz
) that demonstrates that the presence of delegate in a workplace is causally linked to increased union membership, density and power.
This research also points to the importance of supported, trained delegates. Having a WOC for your delegates materially increases their effectiveness – and adding the development a social support network for your delegates and your WOCs will further strengthen their resiliency.
Benefits of adding a social element to your WOCs include:
- Increasing attendance at WOC meetings
- Emotional validation and strength
- Greater objective understanding of workplace issues
- Improved resilience in a time of crisis or conflict in the workplace or within the group.