CleanStart, the successful campaign to organise cleaners in Australia, is ‘unashamedly top-down’, argues Michael Crosby, former co-ordinator of the campaign and now director of the Change to Win European Organising Centre in Amsterdam. The Australian general union LHMU had made a decision to focus resources on three key sectors: childcare, cleaning and hotels. This was a tough decision, for it meant that workers in other sectors ‘will have to wait their turn to have a voice at work’.
Crosby makes his observations in a contribution to The Future of Union Organising, a volume edited by Gregor Gall that takes a critical look at the systematic organising approach. This approach was pioneered by unions such as the American services union SEIU and is now being adopted on the European mainland and elsewhere.
A number of contributors to the book claim that organising is in name about empowering workers, but in reality taking power away from them. The emphasis on allocation of considerable resources based on strategic research would contribute to centralised decision-making, at the expense of spontaneous grassroots worker initiatives. Also, the organising approach would rely too much on paid union officials rather than elected leaders.
Crosby argues that a top-down approach was inevitable in the cleaning sector, because workers are very vulnerable there. In the hotel sector, where workplaces are larger, there will be a larger role for workplace organising. Even so, this campaign also requires major resources.
Other authors point out that spontaneous workplace organising is being stifled by labour relations regulations. For example, when workers want to go on strike, the hands of union officials are often tied by procedural requirements. Such requirements can arise from government legislation, but also from partnership deals between unions and employers.
Some authors claim that the SEIU would be too keen on reaching agreements with employers. This is interesting from a European mainland perspective, where the ‘American approach’ associated with the SEIU is often thought to be too confrontational for the European labour relations culture.
In one of the contributions to the book, Kim Moody looks at outcomes of American organising efforts in terms of membership and union density. Union density among cleaners, carpenters and construction workers has declined over the past few years. On the other hand, density has risen in sectors such as hospitals and home care, which, like cleaning, are targets of the SEIU.
There has also been a considerable rise in union density in meatpacking. Here, food and commercial workers’ union UFCW has gained 18,000 members between 2003 and 2007, with total employment remaining basically stable. Help from a community organisation and immigrant self-organising would have contributed to this result.
Gregory Gall (ed) The Future of Union Organising: Building for Tomorrow. Palgrave.