As we build up the membership continuum, this post will move to the first type of membership for those who are in paid work – minority membership.
Now is the time where I fess up. A lot of what I’ve written on Direct unionism comes from a 2002 article by Joel Rogers and Richard B. Freeman published in The Nation entitled ”A Proposal to American Labor“. The article is fascinating on two fronts: (1) it (re)introduces the concept of minority union membership, and (2) predicts how the internet will change the very means of organising Unions.
In essence, Rogers and Freeman foreshadow how the internet as a communications technology can be used for organising workers who are not only without the protection of a Union Agreement but have no realistic hope of obtaining one in the near future:
Opening up to these new members would entail some administrative challenges. Many unionists will worry about the cost of servicing workers outside union security clauses and regular dues collection by employers. But the economics of the Internet have changed this cost equation in fundamental ways. At essentially zero marginal cost, unions can communicate with an ever-expanding number of new members, and they can deliver all manner of services to them through the Internet.
Rogers and Freeman named this “open-source unionism”, and this is a major influence on the Direct unionism project. I first read this article four years ago, and for years now it has been driving me to think about and act to build a unionism that has the strength to win for workers in the 21st century.
The minority member concept also opened up for me the idea that the member/non-member binary does not work for workers. The minority member is really a union member who is engaged at a workplace that does not have majority union coverage, and thus (although this does not always follow depending on the jurisdiction) is not covered by a Union Agreement. What this means in practice is that this is a Union member who does not have the benefit of a union organiser/industrial officer directly assisting and participating in the negotiation of their employment contract at work. On the one hand, this means that the member is without the primary upward driver to their wages and conditions (workers standing united through the collective bargaining process). However, on the other the main cost to a Union (as a registered and official entity) in providing membership is the cost of engaging officials such as organisers/industrial officers to coordinate and assist in the very same bargaining process. Rogers and Freeman’s idea is that by offering a reduced membership rate for workers not covered by a Union Agreement, it opens up unionism to a whole range of new members.
Minority membership may, at first, not appear to be so inspirational. It is a recognition that a worker is in a workplace where the employer holds significant power and there is no immediate prospect that a majority of the workers at the site will bind together as a union. But look beneath its modest outer layers and you will find a radical centre with an insurrectional beginning. Minority membership is a way of, in the IWW tradition, encouraging workers to start to act together on the job regardless of whatever the contemporary legal strictures around collective bargaining or majority union recognition. It is thus, a way to encourage greater worker action that could then grow into something larger again. I think somebody, said once about big things growing from little things.
There is no Direct unionism without minority membership. Minority membership provides the structural foundation for a worker to remain a member while moving from places covered by a union agreement to those that do not have a union agreement. As Rogers and Freeman write, “[j]oining the labor movement would be something you did for a long time, not just an organizational relationship you entered into with a third party upon taking some particular job, to expire when that job expired or changed”. And when more and more of us can only find temporary or insecure work, joining the union movement must be about more than a transactional relationship tied to a particular employer. This leads, however, to two further questions.
First, what sort of infrastructure would a union require to implement a successful minority membership program? As I’ve written in earlier posts, a interactive website that provides both legal and organising advice and assistance would be useful. Another component would be a well-staffed membership service centre, so that a minority member may have the opportunity at least to speak with a trained union organsier to get some remote assistance or identify an opportunity for a group of minority members to push for majority status. Second, how could a minority membership be implemented in a non-United States context? It seems right now that while interesting work is going on in building Workers’ Centers, it you’re not already covered by a Union contract at work then by and large you’re not a member. But take Australia for example, many union members, given our tradition of Award based wage setting, are not actually covered by any form of agreement. As we enter the twentieth year of enterprise-based bargaining this may feel like an historical overhang but it means a system of minority membership cannot be implemented without due regard to context.
Minority membership is a step towards taking the basic power of union recognition away from the hands of employers. Recognise us or not but we are everywhere, and we are rising.