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Solidarity Unionism and Radical Alternatives to Arbitration.

Wed, 04/07/2018 - 7:56pm

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.

Workers on the ground will usually have the best understanding of what’s affecting their lives day to day. They should be empowered to set the priorities for different demands and decide when compromises are necessary.

Rather than pursuing enterprise agreements, membership growth and court action as ends in themselves, Solidarity Unionism views these as tactics to be considered on acase-by-case basis. By prioritising democratic decision making, workers are invested in their union rather than becoming passive consumers of unionism as a service. Before it was criminalised, the working class had a proud history of acting in solidarity with each other and their values. In 1938 dock workers refused to load iron headed for imperialist Japan at a time when the Australian government was continuing to appease the rise of fascism.

Such a strike would be illegal under modern laws such as Labor's Fair Work Act in 2009, which makes any strike illegal unless it meets certain criteria and bans social, political and cross-industry strikes. While we can point to a rise in anti union legislation in the last few decades, limiting the natural power of workers is a core goal of the arbitration system, and similar attempts at limiting the right to strike have been around for as long as we've had this system.

Just as we know that Governments will fail to adequately protect the environment, and that it’ll be necessary for community members to take matters into their own hands, we should recognise Governments will similarly fail to protect us in our workplaces.

Although our system makes these ideas difficult to implement, every workplace can learn from these principals. Solidarity networks and unofficial unions continue to be set up around the world. Such groups often leverage change by engaging workers and consumers and achieve wins by making workplace problems impossible to ignore.


Below is a first-hand account from one such action in August 2017:

Our action group met at Auburn Station that morning for an action briefing and to listen to one of the affected workers explain the situation. The context was simple, four migrant women were owed over $4080 in wages for work at a factory in Greenacre. Despite repeated demands, they had never been paid.

We had decided to target the owner’s other business, a popular kebab shop in Auburn that had a high profile and a good location. We started chanting up from the station and once we reached the shop, stood outside the entrance handing out flyers with information about the stolen wages to passers-by.

Most people took a flyer and continued walking, however quite a few were shocked and angered over the owner’s behaviour. Unfortunately, most of the workers at the kebab shop were outwardly hostile to the protesters. A dynamic of conflict soon arose and police arrived within the hour, however the officers told us we were welcome to continue our action as long as we made sure the footpath stayed clear.

The kebab shop workers all seemed to be from the same ethnic community or even family, and the loyalty towards management and the owner was high. Employees at the kebab shop may have seen the action as a threat to their own livelihood and jobs and violence started to break out.

On our suggestion, a phone call was made to the manager who eventually arrived and tried to persuade us to leave. We explained that the protesters wouldn’t leave until the owner paid the wages owed, who eventually did call.

He threatened the woman he owed but agreed to pay, which was then askedfor in writing. Within two hours protesters had left the premises as the situation became too unsafe and violent to sustain, with the promise to come back next week if the wages were not paid. Protests and community flyering would continue until demands were met and the business would continue to lose customers and profits.

Three days later all four workers were paid the $4080 wages they were owed, given along with a threat to sue them for protesting. Nothing about this situation has been brought before the courts.


To find out more visit SydSol.net and iww.org


AnarchismSyndicalismWorkers control
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