How Unions Can Expand Their Members' Community of Fate

Published January 13th, 2014 -  - 01.13.142


Why can some organizations mobilize their members to act on issues that exceed the organization’s original mission, especially causes that have little or nothing to do with members’ reasons for belonging? In their new book, In the Interest of Others: Organizations and Social Activism, John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi show how some labor unions have expanded their members’ “community of fate,” allowing them to see others as engaged in similar struggles for similar goals. For example, their theory might explain why an American labor union might support a protest in another country that is unrelated to the union’s primary goals, where its members have little to gain (at least materially) by such solidarity.

The answer, in broad strokes, depends on balance: union leaders can suggest new political goals for the union to pursue, but only after the leaders have secured the material benefits that members expect. Unions are particularly effective in giving their members the ability to act on these new goals, which over time allows members to see themselves as involved in other workers’ struggles for justice and equality around the world.

The authors’ theory starts with labor leaders, who serve as the catalysts for enlarging the union’s community of fate. Such leaders come into power with a preconceived broad idea of what causes the union should focus on. The leader’s initial job is two-fold: she has to secure material benefits for union members (wage raises, benefits, etc.) while also devising institutional rules to enhance the leader’s legitimacy among union members. The leadership has to demonstrate that they are competent and valuable by winning material benefits for the rank-and-file, which frees up “social capital” to pursue other objectives. The leader then can frame the other causes as a “leadership rent” that is a price of the leader’s continued work. The result is “contingent consent”: members will willingly go along with the leader’s new ideas as long as they are convinced that they are receiving the material benefits the organization promised them upon joining.

The second half of the equation is that labor leaders need to open up democratic channels that prove that they are accountable to the rank-and-file. As the authors state, “Key constraints involve limits on the leader’s pay and possible sanction by members, including losing office. For the constraints to work, the members must be sufficiently informed about policies and events on which they are asked to take stands.” Labor unions are well suited to open up these channels of communication. Because most people join unions for economic reasons, many unions attract a very diverse membership. Thus the union already has strong incentives to open up channels of communication so workers can make sure they’re “getting what they paid for.” The tradition of collective participation that runs deep in some unions’ culture also helps facilitate this feedback.

Over time, the focus on broad social causes not only serves as a sort of capacity-building exercise for the union, but can affect the issues that some rank-and-file members care about. Eventually members can come to hold the belief that their fate is intertwined not only with their associates in the organization but also with a larger population; by helping others, they are helping themselves. Personal interactions among the members, the capacity to challenge leadership arguments and demands, and attachments to the organizational traditions are the factors that produce both contingent consent and a more encompassing community of fate.

The authors give one example from an Australian union: “A retired Australian dockworker followed us out of the union hall to recount his experience. At a lunchtime union meeting on the docks many years earlier he heard about the Dutch ships coming to Sydney to load arms for use to put down the Indonesian rebellion. He emphasized that he had never heard of the Indonesian rebellion and was not particularly political. He did not sympathize with the communism espoused by some of the union leadership of the time. But when he learned about the Dutch ships he was shocked and the union gave him a way to do something about it.  He joined the union embargo against the Dutch ships. Credible new information and the possibility of action in the context of his union transformed his beliefs about his own political efficacy.”

These insights have implications for other membership-based organizations, such as religious groups and political parties. (However, the comparisons don’t map on perfectly, since in religious groups benefits take decidedly non-material forms and leadership can be very top-down, and political parties are rarely as participatory as the ideal union.) But the overall conclusion still works: “It is possible to build organizational governance that improve the material well-being of constituents while also evoking from them commitments to a larger public good.”

If one goal of union participation is solidarity with one’s fellow worker, this theory suggests that the promise of unionism can extend further that the walls of one employer, one industry, or even one country. Expanding the community of fate is no sure thing – the authors present a quite complicated theory of how it functions, and it is dependent on many variables. But it is nonetheless promising that unions can serve a democratic function at the same time that they expand understanding, empathy, and most importantly, action, across race and national lines that are usually difficult to traverse.

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