• Emilio Singh

Just One Word: Union

How do you tell the difference between a plumber and a chemist? Ask them to pronounce the word: unionised.


With what might be the best joke I have to offer in this article, let me start a new series on this blog about what I would consider informative socialism. One big challenge to spreading socialism is disconnection between socialism in theory, and socialism in practice. Even some of the terminology can be confusing when first starting out. This is especially important because building praxis (see what I mean?) is tough when a lot of socialism's most important lessons are in dusty tomes written by so long ago. So this series, Just One Word named after that line from The Graduate, is about distilling down some important socialist/leftist ideas in what I hope is a simple way, with a eye towards emphasizing these ideas in a practical sense.


So to start this series of, I'm starting with something close to my heart: unions. But what are unions? Why should they exist? Do we really need unions?


Unions are very simply, just an agreement by workers to organise together. That's really at the heart of what a union is. A bunch of workers agreeing to organise themselves as workers in a company or business. Reasons for this are as varied as the types of unions themselves. For example, workers in a factory might want to protest the safety standards in that factory but can't because the management won't take concerns of single workers seriously. With a union, all the workers can use their collective bargaining power to get some real change by bargaining with their collective labour power.


And therein lies the rub at what unions are meant to do: empower workers in the capitalist system. With a union, a bunch of workers with little power individually can pool their power into something sufficiently strong enough to bring about changes that improve their lives. That sounds great right? But as we'll see, not all unions are created equal.




The Union Scale

Unions like gender, isn't a strict binary. It's a spectrum between two contrasting ideas: unions that serve the interests of workers and unions that serve the interests of companies. No prizes for guessing which side of the spectrum I prefer. So I'll talk about each starting from the left to the right.


One Big Union: In addition to achieving world domination, the one big union is as it says on the tin: one union. All workers regardless of skill or job or industry, are organised into the union against the interests of capitalism on a systemic level. So this is a sort of socialist super weapon against a capitalist system. Since all workers (yes, all really) are organised into the union, it has enormous bargaining power against the system of capitalism but it's also very hard to fully achieve because it really does need a massive societal investment by the proletariat. The IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) is such a union.


Industrial Unions: These are the next step from total world domination. The difference is that industrial unions are organised by industry, rather than all workers everywhere. So, all workers (of all skill levels) in an industry like auto-workers are in one union. Everyone from the guys building the cars in the factory to the engineers designing the new products. There are separate industrial unions obviously for each industry but intended to not overlap with each other.


Craft Unions: A craft union is even smaller in scope than an industrial union. One of the big differences is that craft unions do differentiate based on worker "skill" whereas industrial unions do not. This is big because it gives the first real basis of an unjust hierarchy that the capital class can exploit to divide workers. When an industrial union splits workers in industries that will generally not have much overlap, craft unions are organised generally for the skilled union members to advocate for their rights first (and usually only).


Company Union: You know how the nazis aren't socialist even though they have socialist in their name? Well a company union isn't really a union even though it is called a union. Company unions are as the name suggests, formed by the company "for" its workers. In reality, this union does not help the workers and only really enforces the will of the management. Why? Well, the company sets up the union, meaning they have a controlling influence on what the union can and cannot do. This means that a company union can prevent the union members from taking actions that will harm the business in trying to advocate their interests. As a word of advice, do not join company unions!



The main problem I want to address, is that most people will only have experience with the unions on the right side of the scale. These unions are generally not going to seriously allow for the kinds of radical change that will change working conditions. So this really puts people off unions. Throw in rubbish ideas like "worker's right to work" and you can see that most people are turned off unions.


But here's the thing, if you're a worker, you need unions. It doesn't matter what you are, a video game developer or a miner, you need the power of the union to argue for your rights. And importantly, your power as an individual is very little. If you want something like better working hours, then you need a union.


So what can you, the worker reading this, do? Well, join me in the next part of this series where I talk about what unions can do for you, and why should organise.








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