Almost universally, trade unions are on the defensive, having suffered a decline in membership, in public status and in effectiveness at achieving their core objectives. There has been widespread discussion of the need for modernization, revitalization and renewal.
Trade unions developed in the 20th century as important national actors. As collective bargainers, in most countries their primary role was at national (sectoral or cross-sectoral) level. As "social partners," their key concern was to influence the macro-economic and social policies of national governments. The precondition of effectiveness in both cases was that their counterparts - employers and the state - were in willing and able to bargain local wage conditions. The increasing integration of the global economy puts this in question. Many analysts have seen "globalization" as constraining the scope for employment regulation at national level and hence undermining the capacity of trade unions themselves. Unions' inability to achieve improvements in real wages and social benefits which had become part of workers' normal expectation has led to loss of membership and status.
There are other constraints on union strength. Curbs on public expenditure, and in some countries extensive privatization, have diminished the size of former public-sector strongholds. The average size of private firms has shrunk (in part because of the fashion for contracting out activities which were formerly undertaken in-house), and small firms tend to be less unionized and observe collectively agreed conditions; while increasingly even large private employers seek to develop company-specific conditions of employment, either abandoning their associations or insisting on a shift to a two-tier bargaining system in which decentralised negotiations assume predominance. Also, there has been everywhere a relative decline in the manufacturing sector and a growth in private services, which in most countries have in the past been weakly unionized.
Universally, white-collar employees today outnumber manual workers. In almost all countries, the former were traditionally far less well unionized than the latter, to some extent because the scope for individual career progression inhibited collective consciousness but also because many trade unions had reservations about recruiting occupational groups which were seen as close to the employer. Among manual workers, occupational differentiation has increased, and indeed the boundary between manual and white collar has become blurred. There has also been a growth in part-time employment. Other increasingly prevalent forms of "atypical" workinclude fixed-term contacts, agency work and dependent selfemployment- again, categories not traditionally unionized in most countries. In many cases the labour force has also become far more ethnically diverse, and minority groups have often been neglected by trade unions.
This confluence of trends has led to a fundamental undermining of union power and effectiveness - something the labour movement has not yet effectively countered.
Capitalism is constantly restructuring and transforming. The present moment is clearly one of systemic transformation and at such times, trade unions are typically fire fighters, reacting desperately to challenges to the established "industrial legality." Typically also, they do so in a strategic vacuum. This restricts the effectiveness of union action and can lead to even greater frustration among union members regarding their union's value and purpose.
Is there an alternative? My argument is that trade unions need to redefine, indeed re-invent, their understandings of solidarity and to do so, they need to rediscover how to behave proactively and strategically.
Redefining and Re-inventing Solidarity
The principle of solidarity has a long history, its meanings have changed over time and its interpretations remain varied. For example, both socialists and Catholics commonly appeal to the ideal of solidarity, but what they understand by this is in many respects very different. One conception presupposes common identity, the possession of characteristics which mark individuals as members of a group - the nation, the tribe, the religious sect (or perhaps alsoUniversally, white-collar employees today outnumber manual workers. In almost all countries, the former were traditionally far less well unionized than the latter, to some extent because the scope for individual career progression inhibited collective consciousness but also because many trade unions had reservations about recruiting occupational groups which were seen as close to the employer. Among manual workers, occupational differentiation has increased, and indeed the boundary between manual and white collar has become blurred. There has also been a growth in part-time employment. Other increasingly prevalent forms of "atypical" work devotion to a particular football club or pop group) - with a collective loyalty and a clear sense of difference from those outside its ranks. Sometimes the homogeneity of the group may be reinforced by rituals, uniforms, and arcane vocabulary.
A second type of solidarity, at times overlapping with the first, is based on awareness of common interests which are best pursued collectively. This is the classic rationale for trade unionism: workers as a whole are victims of oppression and exploitation, individually weak as employees, consumers or citizens but unity is strength. The foundation of effective labour movements depended on "solidarity as a mobilizing myth." It was by emphasizing the commonality of interests that union organizers sought to persuade workers that "an injury to one is an injury to all." And because interests are shaped by subjective perception as well as objective situation, belief could create its own reality. "Solidarity forever" became factual, to the extent that the heroic myths actually shaped workers' understanding of their owcircumstances.
A third meaning of solidarity involves mutuality despite difference. This perception of mutuality may be based on a sentiment of interdependence. A different way of comprehending this meaning is as an expression of the common fate of humanity: "no man [or woman, we would add today] is an island," wrote John Donne. From this perspective, there is an obligation for the strong to support the weak - either on the pragmatic rationale that the roles might on some occasion be reversed or through a more diffuse recognition of the human condition. In some variants, this third approach may turn solidarity into a synonym for charity, implying pitying support for passive victims. This is far removed from the socialist view of solidarity as active and reciprocal. Nevertheless, the idea of mutuality despite difference is essential to inform and enrich the solidarity of labour movements in a world where many of the old reference points of identity and status have been eroded.
How to Create New Solidarity?
In many respects, the malaise afflicting labour movements in much of the world today stems from the exhaustion of their old model of unionism. How do we understand the idea of solidarity if the old notion of an undifferentiated working class is abandoned? One answer is to attempt to impose the "common rule" bureaucratically from above, to denounce and suppress those who attempt to define their own distinctive agenda. Another is to make solidarity a form of ritualized profession largely detached from day-to-day trade union practice. This is almost certainly the case with most expressions of trade union internationalism. Over a century ago, Australian dock workers subscribed the equivalent of several days' pay to support their striking colleagues in London, who a year later responded with similarly impressive sums when the Australians were in dispute. Today, such solidarity is scarcely imaginable: internationalism is largely the preserve of the professional labour diplomat. One may doubt how many union members have even heard of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). This lack of articulation between bureaucratic, institutionalized solidarity and a collective sense of mutuality is one reason why bodies such as the ITUC pack so limited a punch.
Is there an alternative? Workers' organizations themselves gain effectiveness by shaping the ways in which members identify their own circumstances and frame their own grievances and aspirations. This process can be double-edged. Most labour movements in the 19th and 20th century expressed as general interests of the working class which were often the specific interests of its strongest sections. To cling to former models of solidarity means increasingly to suppress the more differentiated concerns of women workers, members of minority ethnic groups, those with marginal occupational status, new entrants to an increasingly unfriendly labour market, and so on.
A solidarity which can appeal to those outside the traditional ranks of trade unionism must accommodate, indeed welcome, diversity. Solidarities must be multi-faceted: first because the labour market circumstances of different groups of workers are varied; second because identities are increasingly differentiated. Both themes imply abandoning the principles of mechanical solidarity. In other words, solidarity must be flexible, not uniform; common action must be the outcome of debate and discussion, not hierarchically imposed; and the suppressed alternatives of traditional collective action must be rediscovered.
For more than a decade, the world of work has been permeated by risk and insecurity. The demand by employers - and increasingly, governments - for "flexibility" means reversing many of the gains won by labour movements over more than a century. There can be no doubt that, among workers, this is a source of disorientation and resentment. Yet the discourse of flexibility also connects with the attractions of individual autonomy and choice. Can trade unions bridge the borderland between insecurity and autonomy?
Should overtime working be prohibited altogether, rewarded by extra payments or compensated by time off at the individual's own discretion? Some recent agreements in Denmark seem to have confronted the fact that union members have differing preferences by offering a menu of options. Should part-time employment be resisted (until recently the reflex union response), or should there be scope for variable hours of work - if employees themselves can agree or refuse, and can obtain the same employment rights as full-time employees? If the "normal" employment relationship of the 20th century is increasingly eclipsed and "atypical" forms are increasingly typical, unions can either continue to fight battles which are probably already lost, or can mobilize for effective, flexible regulation of the current employment jungle.
The challenge for trade unions today is to develop forms of regulation which define a solid framework within which workers can exercise genuine choice. This means determining which rules should be primary and universal and which are secondary and discretionary. It means redefining flexibility, resisting flexibility as precariousness and vulnerability but embracing flexibility as the right to choose within an overall framework of protection. This would be an expression of a genuinely organic solidarity: a combination of universal shelter and individual opportunity.
Trade unions must ask themselves whether they are willing and able to use this crisis as a chance to reform their organizations and policies, both nationally and internationally. If interests are to be conceived and redefined in ways which highlight complementarities and encourage new solidarities, the bureaucratic, hierarchical politics characteristic of much traditional trade unionism must give way to more participative, interactive processes. For unions to survive and thrive, the principle of solidarity must not only be redefined and reinvented; workers on the ground must be active participants in this redefinition and reinvention.
Richard Hyman is a professor at the London School of Economics. He researches comparative industrial relations with a particular focus on European trade unionism. His work attempts to link theory, practice and empirical evidence.