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Employment relations

Trade unionism and the concrete universal

31 January 2019
Trade unions combine a concrete universalism with collective action and individual agency.

In our latest blog, Dr Jonathan Preminger outlines how we might (re-) discover the radical potential of trade unionism in response to a post capitalist future.

Visions of post-work societies gaining increasing popularity on the liberal left embrace an appealing universalism in which everyone’s basic needs are covered.

They argue that as robots take over our jobs, state-administered mechanisms such as the universal basic income (UBI) will ensure that we can all participate in the ‘good life’ regardless of what we do. In such visions, unions are largely overlooked: they necessarily have little to offer in a ‘post-capitalist’ world of guaranteed income and an end to waged work. 

Yet these visions are unsettlingly apolitical. This stems from an often unacknowledged technological determinism that sees ‘capitalism’ developing in such a way as to inevitably lead to fewer jobs and the end of waged work.

Critics of such ‘post-work’ visions note that this implicitly deterministic and future-oriented focus sidesteps current work-related problems and ignores agency. These critics assert that advocates of Paul Mason-style post capitalism miss the disorderly world of political practice and bottom-up struggle.

“It is precisely in this disorderly world that trade unions can shine.”

Push the boundaries

Unions can push the boundaries of their role and realise a much more radical potential.

Specifically, it is by embodying the universal ideals espoused by the post capitalist left, while remaining rooted in concrete political struggle, that they retain their relevance in the midst of end-of-work assertions and calls for UBI.

While I count myself firmly among the critics of this post capitalist thinking, I believe its vision of universal rights is compelling and laudable. My concern is to retain this vision, but to move away from an ‘abstract universal’ to a ‘concrete universal’ that seeks to “capture and not cleanse the world of specificity and contradiction,” to use the words of recent Futures of Work contributors Lorena Lombardozzi and Harry Pitts.

Trade unions enable us to do exactly this.

Beyond their quotidian role of protecting and promoting the rights of their members, unions can embrace a collectively-engendered vision of a future society and strive to create it through day-to-day struggle over tangible concerns which bear real-world, immediate implications. 

In other words, they can combine a concrete universalism with collective action and individual agency.

“In doing this, unions can push the boundaries of their role and realise a much more radical potential that may have been forgotten during decades of rear-guard union action against the emerging practices and ideologies associated with neoliberalism.”

This is a re-radicalisation as opposed to a new role – but under very different circumstances from those characteristic of unionism’s industrial heyday.

This claim is based on my study of labour organising in Israel. I began my research assuming that trade unions were a thing of the past, holding on to pockets of organised workers but unable to meet the challenges of neoliberal, globalised economies. Yet I soon discovered that not only were unions maintaining their significance, but that in some cases they appeared to be central to quite radical developments. I will offer just two examples.

Opening political space

The High Court’s precedential decision opened up the frameworks and mechanisms of collective labour relations to those who had previously been denied access.

In 2007, there was a very important event in Israeli trade unionism. That year, the High Court ruled that Israeli labour law is applicable to non-citizen Palestinians who work for Israeli employers in the Israeli-occupied territories. In other words, Israeli labour law would now extend beyond the state’s official borders, supplanting the Jordanian labour law which had regulated such workers previously, and reaching beyond the body of people holding formal Israeli citizenship. 

The High Court’s precedential decision was anchored in a universalistic human-rights logic which cannot countenance discrimination on a national or ethnic basis. This logic is liberal and abstractly universal, but its concrete manifestation opened up the frameworks and mechanisms of collective labour relations to those who had previously been denied access. It enables labour to participate in the tangible world of political struggle, to have a role in shaping employment relations and thus their workplaces and the conditions within which they live – i.e., to have agency. 

As I have argued elsewhere, this signifies the opening of political space for non-citizens and permits an active citizenship where formal citizenship is denied.

“Social change is a slow process, but subsequent events suggest that this ruling has indeed affected the dynamics of labour relations, with an Israeli union now organising Palestinians in the occupied territories.”

A wave of unionising

After a summer of social protest was a wave of unionising.

In the summer of 2011, the social protest movement was taken up by young people in Israel inspired by groups such as Los Indignados and Occupy Wall Street.

The protest rapidly gained momentum. It has been estimated that at its peak, a carnivalesque march through the streets of Tel Aviv, some 500,000 people participated – a huge number in a country of just 9 million people.

While the dynamics and causes of such discontent are inevitably complex, the middle classes found themselves increasingly squeezed and there was an overriding feeling that young Israelis lack the standards of living their parents enjoyed.

This was not in any way a labour-based protest. In fact, the main labour federation (the Histadrut) was rejected by the emerging social protest leaders for being part of the ‘establishment’ against which they were protesting. Again, as elsewhere, this was the ‘99%’ against the ‘tycoons’. However, by the end of that summer the protest movement had fizzled out.

What came after this summer of social protest was a wave of unionising. Indeed, the pace of labour organising had picked up a few years before. For example, in 2010 the Histadrut had set up a unit dedicated to organising, but what distinguished much of the organising during and after the protest was recognition among participants that they were channelling the aspirations and energies released in 2011 into established, politically legitimate frameworks, anchored in legislation.

“The “old” unionist institutions were still distrusted, and many new organisations sprung up to challenge them from the outside or change them from within.”

There was however a clear recognition that the broad aspirations of the social movement could take concrete, practical shape within these existing frameworks. 

(Re-) discovery

The point of both these examples is that the collective labour frameworks and institutions that remain from a previous era are being used for new things. Not just in the sense that Streeck argued in 2006, of “fragments that continue to be used, like the ruins of ancient monuments, by being converted to new, less grandiose purposes” – but in some ways quite the opposite.

Their radical potential is being (re-)discovered. Most importantly, the way the workplace has become an arena for broader social demands, and the way corporatist labour relations have been cracked open to allow the participation of non-citizens, illustrate unionism’s potential for a concrete universalism which extends (or at least begins to extend) beyond “nativist projects of national renewal” in the words of Lombardozzi and Pitts

As amply demonstrated by some of the labour campaigns in Israel over the last five years (notably the social workers’ strike), unionism is able to encompass a radical vision of society, but one anchored in concrete political practice, engaging with the real messy world of current workplace concerns while building capacity for collective action and bottom-up struggle.

In their heyday, many labour movements claimed to speak in a universal voice.

Unionist frameworks are able to embrace agency as an ideal, countering the deterministic visions of technologically-driven futures. Unionism can work within a universal conception of rights yet avoid a false universalism by empowering the individual and striving for an engaged citizenry.

“In their heyday, many labour movements claimed to speak in a universal voice. Even as we recognise the glaring holes in that claim, we can still applaud the aspiration and political will. They can aspire to do that again.”

I do not wish to overstate the changes in Israel’s labour relations – this is just the beginning of something as much potential as actual. In particular, the problems of nationalism are still salient in Israel’s case and the High Court ruling does not mean that everyone accepts Palestinians’ right to collective labour relations based on Israeli labour law – never mind their right to participate in the Israeli polity.

But in the cracks of corporatist labour relations, which were once coterminous with an exclusive conception of nation, we see the first stirrings of a radical conception of unionism. This should be the response to apolitical and deterministic visions of post-work societies in a post capitalist future.

This article was originally published on Futures of Work, with thanks to Dr Assaf Bondy, Jerusalem Hebrew University, for his comments on an earlier draft. 

Dr Jonathan Preminger is lecturer in work and labour relations at Cardiff Business School. His book, Labor in Israel: Beyond Nationalism and Neoliberalism waspublished by ILR Press, an imprint of Cornell University Press, in 2018.