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Solidarity Unionism and Radical Alternatives to Arbitration.

August, 2017

By Ish and Bridget H.

As activists, we are no strangers to the union movement. However we shouldn’t view unionism as a homogenous or a-theoretical force. There are many, often competing, tendencies and tensions that affect the union movement today. One concept that receives little attention in Australia is that of Solidarity Unionism.

Unionism, in Australia, is often understood in terms of the system called Arbitration. Under Arbitration, unions seek to brand themselves as legitimate and representative institutions by negotiating with management and governments for workplace agreements (EBAs) and laws that will be recognised as valid by all parties. All the while supposedly neutral ‘arbitrators’ like the Fair Work Commission and courts monitor for fairness and decide what is legal and illegal. Those who break the rules face a range of criminal penalties. Whilst this is considered the norm, and has seen a significant decline in productivity lost to strike action, what have we given up because of an endless desire of legitimacy?

This system places the points of struggle far away from workplaces where workers have the most power. For example, bosses will often know that when they underpay their workers, only a federal court order can force them to repay stolen wages. They’ll calculate that the vast majority of the people they steal from wouldn’t have the resources to challenge them in the courts and even if someone does, the money they can potentially save is worth the risk. If a worker encourages others to go on strike over stolen wages, their boss can fire everyone who goes on strike or encourages others to do so.

Unions can only make demands during set periods of bargaining, and surrender nearly all forms of workplace power during the years in-between, limiting their power to actually enforce the workplace agreements they bargained for in the first place. Unions are forced to professionalise and become more like the institutions they are fighting against. Survival and growth depend on spreading increasingly high costs over large numbers of members, and the more workers that join the union, the more sustainable it can be.

Anything that costs money but doesn’t generate membership, such as education, campaigns for workers in other industries and social justice, has to be minimised. Spending on marketers, lawyers and lobbyists increase over time. Solidarity unionism is, by contrast, a simple idea. Workers power, and solidarity to each other, can be enough to challenge the power of the bosses directly and achieve immediate wins.

Solidarity unionism puts organising and empowerment of workers at the heart of a dynamic movement. Radically decentralised shop unions and community networks can negotiate directly with bosses, highlight injustices, execute direct actions and share information amongst everyone affected by an issue.