The New Social Unionism: A New Union Model for a New World Order by Peter Waterman

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The concept of a new social unionism (NSU) is intended to relate to and be appropriate for our contemporary world. This is a world increasingly marked by the dramatic expansion and equally dramatic transformations of capitalist, military, state, imperial, technical and patriarchal forms and powers. It is consequently marked by the appearance of what I will call the new alternative social movements (NASMs – feminist, anti-militarist, human-rights, ecological, etc.) alongside such old ones as those of religion, nation or labour.

There have been different responses to this new situation on the left, even amongst those who admit the changes. One has been to re-assert the centrality of capitalism and the primacy of the capital-labour contradiction. Another has been to see ours as a post-capitalist, post-industrial, post-Marxist, post-historical or post-modern era, and to see the new social subjects, identities and movements as replacing the working (or any other) class. A third has been to re-conceptualise and broaden the understanding of work and therefore the role of labour movements. I do not care for the either/or choice offered by the first and second position, largely because both seem to subordinate or exclude much common contemporary human experience and protest. I prefer a synthetic (dare one say historical and dialectical?) view recognising both continuity and transformation. I am therefore drawn to the third position, because it looks both backward and forward, and because it works up and out from an impasse the unions are presently in. But we must also remember that the overwhelming majority of the world’s workers (including the traditionally-defined proletariat) is not unionised. And, even if defined as workers, the overwhelming majority of the poor, powerless, marginalised and alienated are not unionisable. Furthermore, the major international movement of the present day is not so much a labour or socialist one as a broad, varied and complex democratic movement – of which labour is but one part. In so far as one can generalise about the NASMs as contemporary pluralist democratic movements, the case for looking at the unions from their angle, or in the light of their experience, rests here.

1. New bases for a new model

I will summarise the argument for a new union model in five major points.

There is a growing crisis in trade unionism, a crisis that goes beyond policy, ideology, or particular world area, to the very nature and form of unionism as we know it. The communist and radical-nationalist (populist) union models have more or less collapsed, both where they are `in power’ and where they are not. The most-advanced social-democratic model, in Sweden, is in crisis. Even the most-successful of the `social movement unions’, in Brazil and South Africa, are struggling to come to terms with at least semi-liberal democracy. No new model is taking shape in the ex-communist world and it is unclear what conventional shape it could take there.

This is due to a) a revolution within capitalism as profound and significant as that from craft to industrial production; b) the transformation from the internationalisation of capital to the globalisation of society; c) the passage from a simple capitalism to a complex one. Let us take these in turn.

A) Capitalism is, as Marx recognised, a system of continual self-transformation. The `industrial revolution’ was, after all, a revolution that took place inside capitalism, replacing hand/craft production by `machinofacture’ – industrial production. This required a transformation of the traditional form of labour self-defence from the craft guild to the industrial trade union. The `information revolution’ is another revolution inside capitalism (the successful revolutions of our era seem to have been inside rather than against capitalism). This transformation is based on computerised production of computerised goods, services, information and culture. It is currently the leading edge of capitalism, making both possible and necessary (for capitalists) the worldwide reduction, destruction, restructuring and division of the labour force, labour processes, forms of ownership, coordination and control. A geographically-concentrated and socially-homogenous industrial working class of semi-skilled factory labourers is being increasingly replaced by socially diverse and geographically dispersed labour forces – homeworkers, part-timers, sub-contractees, in towns, villages and distant countries. When a Peruvian worker declares that `being a worker is a relative matter’ (Parodi 1986), he (he?) puts in question a union form based on quite different assumptions. The familiar trade union, based on the model of the life-long, full-time male worker in large-scale private of public employment, is decreasingly relevant and effective.

B) With the collapse of the communist and radical-nationalist states and blocks, the internationalisation of capital has been finally achieved. `Globalisation’ refers both to this process and to its completion. But it also implies the internationalisation of politics (the competitive-party parliamentary system), of domestic patterns (the nuclear family ideal), of culture (rock, pop, TV soap operas, MacDonalds, CNN). Unions, historically oriented towards increasing national worker access to private or public consumption goods and power, are having little success in addressing either an informatised capitalism or a globalised one (for a feminist view of globalisation, including its impact on women’s labour, see Eisenstein 1996).

C) Capitalism can no longer be thought of in terms of an economic `base’ and a dependent `superstructure’ of politics, culture, ideology (actually, it never should have been so thought of). The spheres of capital, state, culture, family, are increasingly interdependent, explaining both the resilience of the system and its vulnerability. Resilience: the destruction of the capitalist `base’ (as in communist revolutions) evidently did not destroy the state (and statism), the commodity (and money-worship) or the family (and patriarchy). Vulnerability: this lies in the increasing dependence of the reproduction of capitalism on these other spheres – implying in turn the increasing relevance of cross-class or non-class struggles for human rights, ecological sustainability, peace, against patriarchy, for freedom of sexual choice, for a democratic, varied and transformatory culture.

Whilst this capitalist revolution may reduce the centrality of the labour/capital conflict, it dramatically increases both the number, significance and scale of social contradictions. Given the decreasing relative number, increasing differentiation and geographical spread of workers, any self-proclamation by the unions or labour movement of the priority of their struggle leads to the danger of self-marginalisation, where capital and state can caricature them as a small minority of the people, self-interested and anti-social. The same is true of any labour dismissal of the NASMs (human rights, peace, ecology, women) as `single-issue’, `bourgeois’ or `western’. The NASMs are better thought of as `fundamental-issue’ movements, since peace, ecological sustainability, and human rights for the majority of the world population (women), would seem to be conditions for the existence of any minimally humane society, capitalist or not! In so far as workers are increasingly recognised as – or asserting themselves – in favour of rights, peace, a clean environment and gender-awareness, they can both broaden the appeal of unionism and increase the number of their allies.

The NASMs arising from such contradictions are not only allies of the old democratic class and popular movements but also suggest appropriate new organisational forms and modes of struggle to them. Unions, typically, take on forms determined by the structure and organisation of capital, of labour markets (the craft union, the industrial union), of the state (which is why they are basically national, typically paying but one percent of their income to their international confederations). But they tend to retain such forms long after capital has changed, making them ineffective even in defence against its worst new abuses. The typical organisational form for the new global social movements is less the organisation than the network. The union form – participatory ideals notwithstanding – has always been affected by the `iron law of oligarchy’ (Michels 1915), meaning self-continuation of leadership and top-down control. The idea of national and international `networking’ (Guzman and Mauro 1996), which includes temporary coalitions and longterm alliances between groups, is of a horizontal coordination rather than a vertical one, something held together more by shared needs and values than by subordination, discipline, loyalty and faith. Thus the organisational/political model is increasingly being replaced by a networking/communication one. The labour movement gets less and less space in national and international media, and its own media and cutural activities have – with exceptions – declined rather than developed over the last 50 years. The reverse seems to be the case with such NASMs as those of human rights, the environment and women, which increasingly recognise communication and culture as terrains of struggle with their own logic and political impact.

The terrain of struggle increasingly spreads from `economics’ and `politics’ to `society’ as a whole, and it equally shifts from the national level both downwards to the local and upwards to the global. Conventional labour movements – left, right and centre – typically prioritise `economic struggle’ (against capital), or `political struggle’ (against the state), or varying combinations and stages of the one and the other (the political-economic unionism of Richard Hyman 1994). This made sense in the period of the capitalist nation-state, or of `nation-state-dependent’ capitalism. But the new or revived notion of `civil society’ indicates another new terrain of struggle – that of popular self-organisation outside, or independent of, capital and state. There has, thus, been increasing recognition of the importance of `society’ as a disputed terrain, and as one central to social emancipation and transformation. The centrality of the nation-state during the period of industrial capitalism has increasingly been challenged, both by international bodies and forces (both inter-state and `inter-civil-society’) and by sub-national communities (regional, ethnic, local). Conventional unions, oriented to the `national economy’, the `nation state’, find it difficult to operate at these new, increasingly important, social levels. Thus, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) made little impact on the UN Social Summit in Copenhagen, 1995, where dramatic political activity was carried out rather by movement-oriented non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This contrasts sharply with the impact of women’s movements and NGOs at and on the World Conference on Women in Beijing, in the same year (Vargas 1996). And it would seem that this impact was not so much despite the lack of an International Confederation of Free Women’s Organisations as because of this!

Now let us look at the relationship of this argument with the development of the new body of emancipatory theory.

2. The development of social movement theory

Origins of the new orientation

From the later-1970s there began to develop a new body of theory, stressing social movements as the focal point of social transformation and therefore for social analysis. Reference was to `new social contradictions’, `new social subjects’ and, of course, `new social movements’ (women’s, peace, ethnic, ecological, consumer, etc.). Those coming from the Marxist tradition were also drawing, implicitly or explicitly, from Marx, where he says:

Communism is for us not a state of affairs

 which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. (Arthur 1970:56-7. Original stress)More specifically, they were drawing from Gramsci, and breaking with the notion of revolution as the seizure of the state and the nationalisation of the means of production. Worker struggles, here, are neither condemned as `economic/reformist’, nor glorified as `political/revolutionary’, but recognised as representing one front or site of political struggle that must be articulated intimately with others if the `present state of things’ is to be abolished. In summary, and in distinction from an economic-determinist and class-reductionist Marxism-Leninism: the economic and social structure is seen as determined by political struggle; classes as shaped and re-shaped through struggle; all struggles are understood as political struggles; the problem is seen – simultaneously – as the interlocked and interdependent structures of capital, state, industrialism, patriarchy, imperialism and racism; the end is the overcoming of exploitation and domination throughout society; this project is seen as realisable only by the articulation of the autonomous demands of different types of workers, of the working class and other `working classes’, of class, democratic and popular demands.

Characteristics of the NASMs

In differentiating the new social movements from the traditional labour movement, Alberto Melucci (1989:205-6) identifies four new structural characteristics. These are 1) the centrality of information (the struggle for that which is concealed and over the meaning of what is revealed), 2) new forms of organisation (e.g. informal, democratic, self-empowering), 3) the integration of the latent and visible, the personal and the political, and 4) a `planetary’ consciousness (a new kind of global awareness). Whilst, as we will see, these characteristics may not be as new as suggested, the very recognition and assertionof their importance certainly differentiates the NASMs from traditional labour organisations – customarily centralised and bureaucratic bodies, dominated by their leaderships and/or outside forces, commonly seen as instrumental to other ends (Economic or Political Development, Independence, The Revolution, Socialism).

Women, as we know, form over half of the world’s population and do well over half of the world’s work. Recent feminist reflection on the consciousness and self-organisation of women workers therefore tells us about workers as well as women, and has implications for the strategies of labour as well as women’s movements. After considering case studies of women workers from India and Nigeria, Chhachhi and Pittin (1996) put forward the following propositions: 1) the contradictory and historically specific impact of patriarchy, capitalism and colonialism leads to fragmented and diverse experiences, leading to multiple identities amongst both female and male workers; 2) such identities are selectively mobilised and asserted in response to specific forms of manipulation and repression; 3) the separation of the private and the public, the factory and the home, the personal and political leads not to opposed spheres or strategies, but rather to a profusion and overlapping of identities, spaces and possible strategies; 4) the double burden of women’s work can be as much an impetus to organising as an obstacle. Bearing in mind the worldwide `feminisation’ of waged work (sub-contracting, homeworking, casualisation, etc.), and the extent to which `to be a worker is something relative’, the recognition of the multiplicity of identities is deeply subversive of any assertion of a single, universal, primary or pre-ordained worker interest and union role. Chhachhi and Pittin go even further, pointing out the limitations on self-organisation of time (its availability), place (location of work/struggle) and space (the creation of the psychological or strategic room for manoeuvre, negotiation and challenge). Such an awareness would seem highly relevant to a period marked precisely by `time-space compression’ (Harvey 1989:Part 3), with shifting boundaries of domination, with popular perceptions of this, and with consequent possibilities for social-movement contestation. If, for example, labour movements continue to assume the time-place-space constellation institutionalised by tri-annual industry-level collective bargaining, or five-yearly national elections, they are unlikely to be able to even understand reactionary, conservative or anarchic popular responses to the increasingly violent disruption of traditional time-place-space relations by an increasingly globalised and informatised capitalism.

Recognition of the increasing centrality of globalisation processes has been growing amongst those interested in new social movements and struggles against alienation. Anthony Giddens (1990) defines globalisation as such an intensification of social relations that the local is shaped by distant events. He considers that today local transformation can neither be understood nor influenced without an understanding of globalisation. The nation-state is increasingly felt to be either too big or too small to deal with the full range of contemporary social problems. Globalisation, for Giddens, has four main dimensions (none of which is prioritised): 1) the world capitalist economy, 2) the nation-state system, 3) the world military order, 4) the international division of labour. Confronting these we increasingly find the following four social movements (similarly non-prioritised): 1) labour, 2) democratic, 3) peace, 4) ecological/counter-cultural. Each of these in turn relates to a dimension of Giddens’ `realistic utopia’ or post-scarcity system: 1) socialised (not socialist) economic organisation, 2) a coordinated and democratised global order, 3) the transcendence of war, 4) a system of planetary care. I would myself add two dimensions/movements, one relating to patriarchy and one to communications/culture. I would also tend to prioritise capital and state as globalising forces, though without necessarily giving primacy to anti-capitalist or anti-state struggles (Waterman 1996a). Giddens’ original model itself, however, suggests the necessity of a new understanding of internationalism, which I conceive in terms of a movement from labour and socialist internationalism to a `new global solidarity’ (Waterman 1996a, Forthcoming, c.f. Drainville Forthcoming).

The historical origins of the new movements

There was, of course, a time when the old social movement (labour) or old social movements (labour and national) were the new social movements. In an interview with Melucci it is pointed out that all four of the features he considers novel were present in the 19th century labour movement (Melucci 1989:214)! This suggests that contemporary movements may, in fact, be understood as reviving and extending forms of action to be found in earlier democratic social movements. Melucci agrees, and himself talks not of the disappearance or irrelevance of trade unionism but about the manner in which it is being today articulated with the NASMs (c.f. Mathews 1989).

The above is of considerable import, and for several reasons. Firstly, of course, it establishes or re-establishes a connection with the labour movement that some NASM theorists might like to forget or deny. Secondly, it suggests that an additional crucial aspect of the new movements is the new understanding of social movements. The new understanding enables us to look at the old labour movement in new ways. Leninism, it now appears, is not so much presently out-dated as originally one-dimensional. The one-dimensionality comes out of Lenin’s instrumental view of unions. They were means to higher ends, a foundation for a structure built in his mind, `transmission belts’ to and from the Party, `schools of Communism’ (Lenin 1970, 1976). The new approach would enable us to view trade unions as social: i.e. either prior to, or beyond, or more than, but in any case distinct from, the `political’ (in the traditional sense of pertaining to the state). We will later see that they can also be seen as cultural phenomena. Thirdly, however, we need to recognise that even if the classical labour movement – and its contemporary expressions – do have the four `new’ characteristics, they were not usually aware of this. Whilst, for example, the 19th and early 20th century labour movement was intensely involved in highly original and specific forms of what I call `alternative international communication’ (Waterman 1992), this was not something it ever reflected on. Such communication would have been seen primarily as a practical instrument for other ends. It is only with the development of the information phase of capitalism that it becomes possible to conceive of a `mode of information’ (Poster 1990), and to use this as a tool to theoretically examine the historical roots, innovations and limitations of traditional international labour communication.

The internationalist connection

The old socialist and thirdworldist internationalisms are today little more than so many empty shells – a series of ideologically-defined, institutionalised and competing internationalisms of politicians and officials having little contact with workers or peoples. The NASMs are increasingly popular and democratic because they are opposed to militarism, bureaucracy and technocracy – to the concentration of power and information in the hands of ever smaller numbers of managers, specialists and officials. In so far as such an increasing concentration of ever-greater powers is recognised to be a universal phenomenon, the new social movements tend to be globally aware and internationalist. They have, indeed, been largely called into being by the increasing statification and `inter-statification’ (United Nations, International Monetary Fund, European Union, North American Free Trade Agreement) of society.

We can, thus, also identify the outlines of a new kind of labour internationalism. This is of the grassroots, shopfloor, community kind revealed by the British miners’ strike of 1984-5. The new labour internationalism is, significantly, frequently interwoven with the internationalism of the new social movements. If labour was most internationalist when, in the past, it was most closely articulated with popular-democratic struggles, it is becoming once again internationalist where and in so far as it re-articulates itself with these (Brecher and Costello 1994). In so far as the traditional institutionalised union internationals are attempting to again become meaningfully internationalist, this seems to require a positive relationship with the internationalism of the NASMs (for the impact of feminism on the ICFTU see Waterman 1996b:22-23).

Internationalist thinking is being increasingly called for by the `democratic revolutions’ that have been taking place throughout the Third and Communist Worlds: these are transformatory socio-political movements in which labour sometimes (not always) plays a significant role. These movements, as we know, do not necessarily result in the creation of liberal-democratic regimes, but they do allow for and require cross-border and global linkages that were either undesired or impossible before. Out of such movements are coming both reflections on and projects for a new kind of global labour solidarity (Waterman 1991). And advanced labour-movement thinking in the West on the future of unionism in the (ex-) Communist and Third World is increasingly seeing it as part of one world of democratic labour struggle (MacShane 1992).

NASMs and political parties

We need to have an understanding of how new social movements relate to political parties – particularly those populist or socialist ones that claim a vanguard role over other social forces, or have the state power to impose such. We can first ask how the relationship between social movements and political parties is now perceived. More than a decade ago Manuel Castells (1983:299) challenged the primacy traditionally accorded the political party, suggesting that the crucial phenomena today are `self-conscious, self-organised social movements’. Castells allows the necessity for political parties, suggesting that social movements are there to move people, and parties to negotiate and institutionalise the changes demanded or won. There is here no disparagement of the party form, simply a denial of its primacy, or its monopolisation of political space. If we accept this more modest role for the political party, then what of its traditional leading role (social democratic, communist, populist)? What kind of party is needed by the new social movements? More than a decade ago, again, Tilman Evers (1985:66) suggested these would need to rather be `rearguard’ parties – i.e. parties that would serve and support rather than leading and dominating the social movements. The development of such a concept into a political practice is not without difficulties, as is suggested by the development of the Workers’ Party in Brazil (Unger 1995).

In our increasingly diverse, complex but interdependent economies, polities and cultures, it would seem, it is not unity but diversity that is strength. It is, in other words, not so much a matter of trying to `raise’ (actually reduce) all the increasing variety to one `primary’, `fundamental’ contradiction (class, nationality or – for that matter – gender). It is rather one of recognising within the many movements the common democratic and pluralist thread. And then finding a solidaristic and egalitarian way of weaving these into each other. Feminist theorising/strategising on the `standpoint’ theory of knowledge (Harding 1992), on identity, alliance, leader-member relations within movements and organisations, provides labour movements with essential pointers here (c.f. Alperin 1990, Pheterson 1990).

The primacy of democracy

It should not need new social movement theory to convince us that democracy must precede and underlie socialism. It was the original understanding of Marx and Lenin also. It is, I believe, what actually inspired the two-stage theories, now largely discredited because the language subordinated democracy to class, treated `bourgeois democracy’ as mystification and manipulation, and then created a socialism in which democracy was not so much mystified and manipulated as hollowed out. The point is made by Stanley Aronowitz (1989:57), who refers not only to the experience of the Third World but also to that of the industrialised capitalist and state socialist ones.

Whilst unions may struggle energetically for either liberal or some kind of socialist democracy, they are today hardly considered as themselves shining examples of democratic virtue, nor to necessarily demonstrate this in relationship to each other, to local communities, toward other social movements. DeMartino considers union bureaucratisation, professionalisation and ritualisation as representing less an iron law of oligarchy than the price paid for making collective-bargaining their central concern. He seems to consider that democracy within the union is less guaranteed by workerist demands for local union autonomy than by broadening the union’s perspectives and even giving full membership to others `affected directly and indirectly by the actions of a particular industry or enterprise’ (DeMartino 1991:49). Whether or not one accepts this proposal, experience in South Africa suggests that the process of internal democratisation and opening out do accompany one another (Bird and Schreiner 1992). Brazilian experience suggests that designing and developing union democracy is by no means an easy process even in a new, dynamic and broad union organisation (Mineiro and Ferreira 1992, Unger 1995), it is nonetheless a necessary one.

A new role for intellectuals

Prioritising democracy has, in Aronowitz’s argument, interesting implications for the relationship between intellectuals and workers. It is no longer a matter of the intellectuals bringing the necessary consciousness to the workers. Workers today are experienced and educated enough to resist intellectuals telling them what their consciousness ought to be. And intellectuals (today a vast and varied category) can now relate to workers’ and peasants’ movements in two other ways, 1) as `technical intellectuals’, assisting and advising movements, 2) as participants in middle-class organisations with which the unions can ally (Aronowitz 1989:59). I find this a formulation that is both insightful and promising. It reflects my own experience of the role of intellectuals in the advance of the `new labour internationalism’, and communication for such (Waterman 1992, c.f. Lee Forthcoming). It is promising in so far as it can relieve intellectuals of the duty of playing the role of Marx and Lenin (or even Luxemburg and Gramsci) in relationship to the national and international labour movements of their day. This does not mean that intellectuals will no longer have the task of generalisation: it does mean they will have to find manners of developing and communicating theory that involve and reach workers in ways that overcome the traditional division of labour within the labour movement.

A self-produced ideology and culture

If the above suggests a more egalitarian relationship between intellectuals and workers, Aronowitz also reinforces my earlier criticism of the traditional instrumentalisation of the unions. Although, with regard to the organisations he identifies, the wish may have been father to the thought, an important possibility and necessity is identified here:

Only the most myopic observer can regard Solidarity or the South African Union of Mineworkers [sic] as traditional trade unions. Like the Sao Paolo metalworkers, they are characterised by a whole network of cultural affinities. The union is not primarily an instrumental organisation; it is the name given to their communities… In the new movements, the union is the repository of the broad social vision; it is linked to the neighbourhoods, as well as to the workplace. In short, it is a cultural as well as an economic form. (Aronwitz 1989: 61)In this conceptualisation, therefore, the surpassing of the capitalist division of social spheres (economic, political, cultural, etc) is not simply a matter of external union alliances but of internal union self-transformation (a similar point is made about women’s movement politics internationally by Melchiori 1996).

Democratisation within work and liberation from work

Struggles against authoritarianism within the wage-labour situation are traditional to the labour movement, expressed in terms of `workers’ control’, `workers’ self-management’ or `workers’ participation’. Recent writing here, however, is taking it beyond the traditional framework by recognising the crisis of socialist strategies, by taking an international perspective (including, for example, tropical African experiences and South African union policy), or by making connections between labour demands and those of the NASMs (see Bayat 1991). The work of Bayat is exceptional in its address to democracy more generally, its awareness of the new social issues and movements, and its response to a range of contemporary literature on alternative social models. His conclusion on the possibilities existing under non-authoritarian capitalist conditions in the Third World are that control may take at least four forms: 1) `natural’ workers’ control in the petty-commodity sector; 2) the democratisation of cooperatives; 3) state-sponsored forms resulting from worker pressure (Malta); 4) union attempts to influence enterprise management and national development policy (tropical Africa), efforts of plant-level unions to counter employers’ attacks resulting from changing industrial structures (India) (172).

The struggle within work has to be combined with liberation from it. Andre Gorz (1989) has produced a challenging critique of the ideology of work that dominates the international trade-union movement as much as it does the capitalist (or statist) media. This ideology holds that 1) the more each works, the better off all will be; 2) that those who do little or no work are acting against the interests of the community; 3) that those who work hard achieve success and those who don’t have only themselves to blame. He points out that today the connection between more and better has been broken and that the problem now is one of producing differently, producing other things, even working less. Gorz distinguishes between work for economic ends (the definition of work under capitalism/statism), domestic labour, work for `oneself’ (primarily the additional task of women), and autonomous activity (artistic, relational, educational, mutual-aid, etc). He argues for a movement from the first type to the third, and for the second one to be increasingly articulated with the third rather than subordinated to the first.

Gorz points out that, with the new technologies, it will be possible within a few years, in the industrialised capitalist countries, to reduce average working hours from 1,600 to 1,000 a year without a fall in living standards. Under capitalist conditions, of course, what is likely to happen is a division of the active population into 25 percent of skilled, permanent and unionised workers, 25 percent insecure and unskilled peripheral workers, and 50 percent semi-unemployed, unemployed or marginalised workers, doing occasional or seasonal work. If the trade unions are not to be reduced to some kind of neo-corporatist mutual-protection agency for the skilled and privileged, they will, Gorz argues, have to struggle for liberation from, as well as liberation in, work:

The liberation from

 work for economic ends, through reductions in working hours and the development of other types of activities, self-regulated and self-determined by the individuals involved, is the only way to give positive meaning to the savings in wage labour brought about by the current technological revolution. The project for a society of liberated time, in which everyone will be able to work but will work less and less for economic ends, is the possible meaning

 of the current historical developments. Such a project is able to give cohesion and a unifying perspective to the different elements that make up the social movement since 1) it is a logical extension of the experience and struggles of workers in the past; 2) it reaches beyond that experience and those struggles towards objectives which correspond to the interests of both workers and non-workers, and is thus able to cement bonds of solidarity and common political will between them; 3) it corresponds to the aspirations of the ever-growing proportion of men and women who wish to (re)gain control in and of their own lives. (224. Original stress)In case it should be thought that struggle against wage labour is the privilege only of workers in industrialised capitalist welfare states (in so far as these may still exist), it should be pointed out that it was with the inter-continental struggle for the eight-hour working day that the international trade-union movement was born in the 1890s, and that similar national or international strategies have been proposed within Latin America (Sulmont 1988) and the USA (Brecher and Costello 1990a).

The importance of Gorz’ argument lies precisely in its rooting within international labour movement history and contemporary union concerns, and the explicit connections made with the new social movements – or, if you like, with those interests and identities of workers that unions currently ignore or repress.

The option for radical engagement

It is sufficient for my purpose if these arguments suggest the kind of resources available for those concerned with the critique of contemporary unionism and the development of alternative strategies. My feeling is that these writings are informed by a similar sensibility. In the language of Giddens (1990:136), this is not the `sustained optimism’ of the Enlightenment, that science and expertise (Marxism and the Party?) will provide social and technical solutions to all past, present and future problems. It is, rather, that of `radical engagement’ (137). Those taking this attitude hold that although we are beset by major problems, we can and should mobilise either to reduce their impact or to transcend them. This is an optimistic outlook, but one bound up with contestatory action rather than a faith in rational analysis and discussion. Its prime vehicle is the social movement. (ibid)

3. A preliminary definition

What has been said above may suggest the distinction between the traditional Leninist concept of political unionism and the new one of an NSU. I will now translate some of the implications into a series of propositions with direct reference to unions. By an NSU I mean that which is:

1. Struggling within and around waged work, not simply for better wages and conditions but for increased worker and union control over the labour process, investments, new technology, relocation, subcontracting, training and education policies. Such strategies and struggles should be carried out in dialogue and common action with affected communities and interests so as to avoid conflicts (e.g. with environmentalists, with women) and to positively increase the appeal of the demands;2. Struggling against hierarchical, authoritarian and technocratic working methods and relations, for socially-useful and environmentally-friendly products, for a reduction in the hours of waged work, for the distribution of that which is available and necessary, for the sharing of domestic work, and for an increase in free time for for cultural self-development and self-realisation;

3. Articulated with the movements of other non-unionised or non-unionisable working classes or categories (petty-commodity sector, homeworkers, peasants, housewives, technicians and professionals);

4. Articulated with other non- or multi-class democratic and pluralistic movements (base movements of churches, women’s, residents’, ecological, human-rights and peace movements, etc) in the effort to create a powerful and diverse civil society;

5. Working for the continuing transformation of all social relationships and structures (`economic’, `political’, `social’, `residential’, `domestic’, `sexual’, `cultural’) in a democratic, pluralistic and cooperative direction;

6. Articulated with political forces (parties, fronts or even governments) with similar orientations (i.e. which demonstrate their recognition of the value of a plurality of autonomous social forces in an emancipatory and transformatory direction);

7. Articulated with other (potential) allies as an autonomous, equal and democratic partner, neither claiming to be, nor subordinating itself to, a `vanguard’ or `sovereign’ organisation or power;

8. Taking up the new social issues within society at large, as they arise for workers specifically and as they express themselves within the union itself (struggle against authoritarianism, majoritarianism, bureaucracy, sexism, racism, etc.);

9. Favouring shopfloor democracy and encouraging direct horizontal relations both amongst workers and between the workers and other popular/democratic social forces;

10. Active on the terrain of education, culture and communication, stimulating worker and popular culture, supporting initiatives for democracy and pluralism both inside and outside the dominant institutions or media, locally, nationally, globally;

11. Favouring direct shopfloor, grassroots and community contacts and solidarity internationally, both with workers and with other popular or democratic forces, regardless of social system, ideology or political identity in the struggle to create a global civil society and global solidarity culture;

12. Open to networking both within and between organisations, understanding the value of informal, horizontal, flexible coalitions, alliances and interest groups to stimulate organisational democracy, pluralism and innovation.

This specification has its own limitations: 1) it may be taken to suggest that any union or worker movement has to fulfil the 12 Conditions before it can join this Post-Communist International; 2) it does not spell out the meaning of `articulated’; 3) it does not say who is going to transform the resistant trade-union structures and procedures. In brief response to these three points: 1) these are propositions to provoke change, not conditions demanding loyalty; 2) the meaning of `articulation’ is perhaps best spelled out in the mentioned feminist writings on `difference’, coalitions, alliances and networking; 3) what is required is the presence of a new alternative social movement within the unions – differing from the role of the old socialist parties in being non-vanguardist, non-sectarian, non-bureaucratic…and in itself proposing or addressing a plurality of worker interests and identities!

Conclusion: the value of the concept

The new concept – such as it is – has itself been drawn from NASMs and new trade-union experiences, both of which have taken shape over the last 10 or 20 years. New labour movements, it is true, may have taken most dramatic form in the context of semi-industrialised authoritarian countries. But not all dramatic worker movements under such conditions give rise to NSUs. Vanguardist or reformist political parties (locally based or foreign sponsored) may dominate the political scene and shape the new worker movements in traditional ways. In Spain, the radical potential of the Workers’ Commissions created in the struggle against Franco was absorbed by social democracy (Fishman 1988). Nor is any new experience guaranteed of permanence. In the case of Poland, people were talking as long ago as 1988-9 of `the obsolescence of Solidarity’ (Staniszkis 1989). In South Africa debate continues to take place on how to preserve an autonomous and effective role for unions under a post-Apartheid regime, and labour specialists seem to be now looking backward to social democracy rather than forward to something new (Gelb and Webster, 1996; South African Labour Bulletin passim).

Whatever the case here, we need to further note that the development of some kind of NSU is not necessarily confined to the semi-industrialised authoritarian countries. It can also – apparently and significantly – be a product of the struggle against de-industrialisation and anti-democratic developments under highly-industrialised liberal-democratic conditions. The authors of a collection on the topic in the USA identify the revival of the US labour movement in terms of labour-community alliances that may escape the bounds of collective bargaining activity and the hierarchical national union structures (Brecher and Costello 1990b, c.f. DeMartino 1991).

If we do, in any case, find moments or elements of a new kind of unionism in the West and East as well as the South, and if we can also perceive seeds of a new kind of labour internationalism in relationship to this, further work on the conceptualisation of both might assist development in a new and exciting direction. We should not try to force all new trade-union realities into our new model. But we should at least see whether the model does not have some reality. And if we (and ordinary workers and union members) find it an attractive one, we could then try, experimentally, to advance it further.


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3 thoughts on “The New Social Unionism: A New Union Model for a New World Order by Peter Waterman

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