The Minority Report
by Alexis Buss
If unionism is to become a movement again, we need to break out of the current model, one that has come to rely on a recipe increasingly difficult to prepare: a majority of workers vote a union in, a contract is bargained. We need to return to the sort of rank-and-file on-the-job agitating that won the 8-hour day and built unions as a vital force. One way to do this, is what has become known now as "minority unionism." It's to form meaningful, organized networks of solidarity capable of winning improvements in individual workplaces, throughout industries, and for the benefit of the international working class.
Minority unionism happens on our own terms, regardless of legal recognition. It is not about settling for creating a tiny clique of professional malcontents. It should aspire to grow, but in the short term gives an example of what kinds of organization is possible when we decide that our unions are going to exist because we need them to.
U.S. & Canadian labor relations regimes are set up on the premise that you need a majority of workers to have a union, generally government-certified. In a worldwide context, this is a relatively rare set-up. And even in North America, the notion that a union needs official recognition or majority status to have the right to represent its members is of relatively recent origin, thanks mostly to the choice of business unions to trade rank-and-file strength for legal maintenance of membership guarantees.
The labor movement was not built through majority unionism -- it couldn't have been. One hundred years ago unions had no legal status (indeed, courts often ruled that unions were an illegal conspiracy and strikes a form of extortion) -- they gained recognition through raw industrial power.
When the IWW fought for the 8-hour day in the timber and wheat fields, they didn't decide to prove their majority to the boss through elections. Workers instead held meetings to decide what their demands were, elected shop committees to present those demands, and used tactics such as walking off the job at the end of an 8-hour shift to persuade recalcitrant bosses to agree to those demands. Union recognition in the construction crafts was built through a combination of strikes, direct action and honoring each others' picket lines (the latter not often enough).
The wave of sit-down strikes that established the CIO in auto and steel, for example, was undertaken by minority unions that had a substantial presence in workplaces with a history of agitating around grievances. The unions then drew upon that minority presence to undertake direct actions that galvanized the larger workforce in their plants -- and inspired workers across the continent.
Unionism was built through direct action and through organization on the job. But in the 1930s, the bosses found it increasingly difficult to keep unions out with hired thugs, mass firings and friendly judges. Recognizing that there was no way to crush unions altogether, and tired of the continual strife, they offered a deal: If unions would agree to give up their industrial power and instead work through proper channels -- the National Labor Relations Board in the United States, various provincial boards in Canada -- the government would act as an "impartial" arbiter to determine whether or not the union was the bona fide representative of the workers.
In the short term unions were able to short-circuit the need to sign workers up one by one and collect dues directly. The bosses traded union busters in suits for the gun thugs they had previously employed. And after a short burst in membership, unions (particularly in the United States) began a long-term downward spiral.
Under this exclusive bargaining model, unions do not attempt to function on the job until they gain legal certification. That legal process affords the bosses almost unlimited opportunity to threaten and intimidate workers, and to drag proceedings out for years. It is a system designed to interfere with workers' right to organize -- and the IWW pointed this out when the National Labor Relations Act was passed.
However, while the labor law regime is designed around this majority-designated majority status unionism, it does not actually require it. As long as workers are acting in concert, they enjoy the same basic legal rights -- such as those are -- whether or not they are in an officially certified union. Indeed, in certain cases they enjoy greater rights, as the courts have ruled that most union contracts implicitly surrender the right to strike. It is illegal to fire members of a minority union for their union activity, to discriminate against them, to fire them for striking, to refuse to allow union representatives to participate in disciplinary hearings, etc. An organized group of workers has legal rights, though it would be a mistake to expect the labor boards to enforce them any more vigorously than they do for unions that have been certified. And an organized group of workers, even if it is a small minority, has much more potential power than unorganized individual workers.
For the most part you have as many legal rights as a minority union as a majority union does -- with the single exception of being certified as the exclusive bargaining agent with the sole authority to negotiate a contract. A minority union has the right to present grievances (though there may not be a formal grievance procedure in place), to engage in concerted activity, to make demands upon the boss, to seek meetings, even to strike (though this isn't a great idea if you don't have majority support).
If you pick your issues well and use them as an opportunity to talk with and engage your fellow workers, you can simultaneously fight for better conditions and build the union. In campaigning around issues that matter to your coworkers you are building the union's credibility, you are gaining experience in self-organization, you are learning who can be relied upon, you are establishing that the union is workers on the job and that we're in it for the long haul.
The labor movement was built when groups of workers came together and began agitating over conditions. Sometimes they persuaded their fellow workers to approach the boss and demand that some problem be corrected. Sometimes they refused to work under unsafe conditions or in unsafe ways, and persuaded their coworkers to do likewise. Sometimes they acted on the individual job, sometimes they held citywide demonstrations over issues of common concern, such as working hours or unsafe work. The important point is that they acted.
They identified key issues of concern, they met together, they decided upon a course of action, and they acted upon it. That is unionism in action. It does not require official recognition, it does not require a contract. It requires workers to come together and act collectively.
If unionism is to become a movement again, we need to break out of the current model and return to the sort of rank-and-file on-the-job agitating that won the 8-hour day and built unions as a vital force.
Minority unionism is about forming meaningful, organized networks of solidarity capable of winning improvements in individual workplaces, throughout industries, and for the benefit of the international working class. It is a process, a process that offers hope for transforming our greatest weakness -- the fact that our members are scattered in many largely disorganized workplaces -- into a strength.