Monday, 6 February 2012

An alternative unionism


The major benefit of working amongst the highly talented trade unionists who comprise the current crop of students on the labour studies MA that I run at Ruskin is the opportunity to develop my own understanding of how labour movements can continue to reshape and grow in the face of external and internal threats to our existence.

It is in this context that I have a great interest in the work of Dek Keenan, an MA student who, under the theme of 'an alternative unionism' is exploring the phenomenon of solidarity, minority and direct trade unionism. The primary proponents and actvists of these models are our fine sisters and brothers in the IWW. And, we have evidence of this method in action via the process of the IWW unionisation of Starbucks - surely one of the most painstaking, breathtaking unionisation successes of recent years.

YouTube has many excellent clips of young Baristas holding forth on the values of the techniques and of the benefits of union membership - they are well worth watching.

You can track these amongst the phenomenal content of the Starbucks Workers Union website ( and get a good sense of what it takes to build and grow a union from nothing and without the need for a bureaucracy and officer structure - and built on worker solidarity.

The IWW success at Starbucks has been written up into a first rate account by Daniel Gross and Joe Tessone (An IWW Story at Starbucks, Counterpunch 2006). In the book they document the roots of solidarity unionism in a phrase used by Staughton Lynd

“Solidarity unionism is a term coined by the great labor activist and author, Staughton Lynd, to describe a rank and file organization of workers who fight directly to win demands without resorting to government certification or union bureaucracy…A solidarity union is simply a group of workers uniting with each other and other workers in the community and (with the internet) around the world, to apply direct pressure around issues of concern at work.”

Lynd wrote a book with this title in 1992 - well worth a read to get a sense of tthe historical basis for the proposition of the concept and, if you are a UK trade unionist, a consideration of what it would take to apply the lessons learned here.

It is arguably the case the we have forms of solidarity unionism in the UK and the case if the Indian Workers Association (IWA) come to mind. The examples however, tend to more historical and ad hoc and nothing on the scale of the unionisation of Starbucks in the US. Despite that, I do think that the UK remains fertile ground for the a transfer of IWW approaches - what is their to lose?

A blog that is well worth following if you are interested in what Dek is researching for his dissertation is one he has just pointed me toward (and from where the graphic below has been lifted)

Please take a look and reply with your thoughts on the blog and what I have posted here. Am I, for example, just being a moist eyed about opportunities outside of our grasp in the UK or, is there indeed an alternative unionism available to us here also?

I look forward to hearing from you.

In Solidarity


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