Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Solidarity and self-interest in the future of unionism



Worrying about the future of work has a long and very distinguished intellectual history. People with my politics will always be concerned with work, and how its design and incidence affects people and their communities.

Workers hands unite into one large fistThere is a risk, though, that a focus on the mechanics of work means we miss broader societal change that reinforce and amplify negatives in the labour market.

There are workplace trends in most developed economies that are hurting many people and communities; de-industrialisation, the systematic shifting of risk onto workers in the form of insecure work, the destruction of life-long career paths, stagnant real incomes, and vanishing middle income jobs.

The decline of unions and the weakening of other labour market institutions and protections is both a cause and consequence. The potential for widespread job-killing, as machines with the ability to perform tasks of increasing manual dexterity and cognitive complexity, are developed is being widely discussed.

Although the exact way this plays out is a function of changes and the choices societies make, the labour market issues are old and obvious. Income and job security. The extent to which workers have control over their working life, and therefore their personal life. New types of automation. The challenges are real, but as capable of being dealt with with as they ever have been.

None of these developments should be the end of unionism, although they could be. The more pressing, and infinitely more complex, issue is embedded in our broader culture and environment. The threat to unionism comes from something much more fundamental about identity and individualism.

The Dutch psychiatrist Paul Verhaeghe has written compellingly about the struggle between the sheer pervasiveness of markets and identity. Identity, of course, is always derived from an interaction between the identity holder and the wider environment.

Just as the 'wealth management' industry is based on the lie that anyone can be wealthy if they are just prepared to take enough individual risk in the form of debt, the modern lie about work is that your place depends on a vicious competition with those around you.


"People don't reach for a collective response to their problems in the workplace because such a response is beyond their experience. This is a bicycle that individuals, and even whole societies, can forget how to ride."


This is a sort of sociopathic individualism, one that denies the collective project, where even the team resembles more a gangster faction than a collective. Success is said to be entirely a function of your own efforts, rendering solidarity not just a foreign idea but inimical to your own interests.

Every organiser knows, and fears, the fragility of solidarity. Solidarity can be broken dramatically by force or by the erosion of ties based on locality, religion, occupation or class. But it can also decay from neglect. And with it goes power.

Solidarity is cognitive muscle memory — a learned behaviour that becomes natural through experience and repetition. It's normalised by a widespread incidence of collective action. Seeing others take collective action and win gives others permission to try it. Conversely, the effective absence of collective action, the situation I'd argue we have now with workplace actions like strikes extinct, robs the collective of the legitimacy of familiarity.

People don't reach for a collective response to their problems in the workplace because such a response is beyond their experience — it literally doesn't make sense to them. This is a bicycle that individuals, and even whole societies, can forget how to ride.

This is not an argument for an apolitical unionism. Rather it's a prescription for the creation of an ingrained, sustainable, values-based politics that vaccinates against the lie that self and group interest are necessarily and always opposed.

The experience of successful collective action is the key to recovering what American political scientist Sheldon Wolin called 'politicalness': the 'capacity for developing into beings who know and value what it means to participate in and be responsible for the care and improvement of our common and collective life'.

Organised workers, as any number of studies on voting behaviour and political participation demonstrate, are 'unionist citizens' (I use the latter term in the 1789 sense and not that of the Migration Act). Voting, an action where you ask others to do something for you, is but a small part of this. Organised workers are naturally predisposed to democratic action that builds and preserves a politics of the common good more generally. A focus on winning the state through the parties as the precondition to rebuilding workplace power (and therefore community power) is upside down.

Unions need to recover their identity and their function in society, as organic exercises in group self-improvement — as organisations that are a natural part of the order of human affairs and not defined (and therefore restricted) by their relationship to the state, the law and party politics.

Unions must rebuild the notion of collective as not something you participate in despite your self-interest, but as the only plausible pathway to securing them for almost all people.

As it was, so it will always be. The answer to the challenges of work is to rebuild solidarity of purpose and action. A solidarity unfettered by legal structures of collective bargaining but anchored in human relationships and, yes, in rational self-interest.


Tim LyonsTim Lyons is a Research Fellow at PerCapita and a former ACTU Assistant Secretary. He tweets @Picketer.

This is the latest article in our ongoing series on work.

Topic tags: Tim Lyons, unions



submit a comment

Existing comments

Gary Morgan's comment on October unemployment: Donald Trump's victory in US Presidential race shows electors believe real unemployment is higher than official statistics suggest Market Research Update - Page Online : 15 November 2016 Original article by Gary Morgan, Roy Morgan Research Roy Morgan Summary US President-elect Donald Trump consistently stated during his campaign that real unemployment in the US was well over 20% or even 25% rather than the official Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) U3 figure - now at 4.9% for October 2016. In May Trump stated: "We have tremendous deficits. Don't believe the 5 per cent. The real [unemployment] number is 20 per cent. The United States is dying from within, its domestic infrastructure is crumbling and successive administrations have wasted $5 trillion in the Middle East instead of using the money to create jobs and prosperity at home." Trump's successful candidacy shows that many Americans agree with the new President that the official unemployment figures are considerably under-stated. There is a clear lesson for Australian politicians in Trump's success. [full text]

Marcus L'Estrange | 14 November 2016  

Thanks Tim, acknowledgement that the future of work is very different to what once thought. This shouldn’t surprise; people like Keynes, Orwell, Vonnegut and even Henry Ford have predicted this for 80 years. Recent ads from the CFMEU, designed to create better image, indicate where we should be heading, Unions looking after their members and family away from the workplace. In my life I have been a minor union official, employer and investor. These three roles are not conflicting, rather a progression, not readily available to many people. Paul Keating, using ACTU ideas, made the breakthrough step to the future through compulsory superannuation. The future hopefully is ordinary people being the owners of industry. Antiquated adversarial ideas of workers versus capital need to be quaint ideas of the past. A good employer gets employees to identify with the business. The next step (already happening crudely) is for the employees to be shareholders, where they earn as much if not more from ownership. With incredibly rapid onset of technology this will be absolute necessity. Who can survive on a few hours work at minimum wages?

Bruce | 14 November 2016  

In the past many great breakthroughs in society have been made by the “idle rich”. People who, either through family owned the means of production or sponsored as academics or churchmen: people who not concerned about a roof over their head or where the next meal would come from. Isaac Newton recognised gravity while sitting on his bum under a tree! For every Newton thousands contributed only as consumers. The Buddha was a tree sitter, he is immortalised as such. Idleness enables great things to happen. Our task is to utilise idleness, we can only do that if people don’t have to worry about their basic needs. Work for most has been meeting basic needs. For many others it is an obsession. Let the obsessed work hard and amass more, but look after the rest. We are wealthier than ever before. The problem is sharing that wealth, not equal sharing that is fairytale stuff. “Not to share the wealth with the poor is stealing”: Pope Francis

Bruce | 14 November 2016  

Thanks Tim for this thought provoking article for a life time member of a relevant trade union, beginning in 1955 at the age of 14 to my current age of 76, and a life member of the UFU. I can see what you describe as the culture now with workers not being able even to think that they could deal with their work related problems in common. Fortunately my industry, firefighting, has not succumbed to this modern trend with firefighters here in Australia and around the world acting in unity on the issues confronting them. Such as hours of work, numbers on shift, rates of pay, health and safety, uniforms, plus numerous other issues. This united action leads to great friendships, success and expectations for the future. Developing policies around common issues is a very democratic educational process which also contributes to the common good.

Kevin Vaughan | 14 November 2016  

"...ordinary people being the owners of industry.." has been tried 100 years ago, Bruce, with spectacular failure. We used to call it Communism. As you also say, "equal sharing is fairy tale stuff". The leaders of the Soviet Socialist Republic would have agreed with you. They lived in unbelievable luxurious circumstances hidden from the poor old worker behind the Kremlin gates - much like the millionaire trade union officials of today with amongst other things their worker funded perks..

john frawley | 14 November 2016  

. As Henry Ford and John Maynard Keynes predicted over 80 years ago technology will wipe out full time employment, it already has. There will never, ever again be enough employment. “Communism” was always one elite replacing another. It was not people owning industry it was the state. We have already gone along way towards “ordinary people being the owners of industry”. The champions of it in recent Australian history were John Howard, Peter Costello and Keating. Thanks to Keating everyone who works is an owner of industry. Not enough. Many large corporations already have employee share schemes. A hundred years ago the great democracies the UK and USA did not allow women to vote. In the UK men were only allowed to vote if they were substantial land owners. The percentage of adult working age people employed is now under 60%. For those the average working week is about 30 hours and quickly reducing. A hundred and fifty years ago the average working week was over 70 hours. Lets return to the “good old days” when workers did not even have an inadequate pension!

Bruce | 15 November 2016  

A union is simply an employee equivalent of an industry or professional lobby, all of which are simply expressions of "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances", as the Americans might say.

Roy Chen Yee | 23 November 2016  

Similar Articles

The misuse of migrant labour in our backyard

  • Sayomi Ariyawansa
  • 23 March 2017

In 2015, Four Corners exposed the misuse of migrant labour in Australian horticulture. It found evidence that the labour hire providers routinely underpaid these workers. Once working on-site, some of these workers were required to work excessive hours and endure unsafe conditions. There is great potential for a licensing scheme to bring a degree of regulation. But there are complex reasons behind the prevalence of migrant worker exploitation in the industry, and a licensing scheme is no cure-all.


How class shapes art in 21st century Australia

  • Ellena Savage
  • 08 December 2016

To be in the running for a scholarship, a student must have had their abilities or potential acknowledged and rewarded within an ideological education system. Where the money comes from - and whom it is given to - informs what kinds of artwork thrives. As Didier Eribon says, 'art, culture and education are part of the mechanisms of differentiation between social classes'. And the institutional frameworks underpinning the production of artwork can lead to pernicious political outcomes.