Unions and social movements: Recognising differences, building unity

History teaches us that the gains made in the past were never a gift bequeathed by those holding the power; they have resulted from struggle through organisation. Over time, the organisational forms used to focus collective action have changed. For those of us rooted in the trade union movement, it is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that we are the prime actor when driving change.

Sure, it is through the employment relationship that millions of workers regularly experience the exploitative (normally veiled) nature of capitalism. It is through the struggle for workplace rights that many workers start to make the links between seemingly separate phenomena and recognise the need for political change. Many of us also recognise that workplace struggle, while a vital schooling for socialists is, by itself, not enough. We know that we have to make the links between disparate struggles and build a mass movement for system change.

Although it is hard to hear, we also know that trade union membership is in decline, while popular involvement with civil and social movements (CSMs), particularly by young people is, at least apparently, on the increase. Given this, surely the left should switch the focus of its energy to the development of CSMs as a vehicle for creating change rather than ever-weakening trade unions?

Of course, this is a ridiculous proposition. We are not faced with a binary choice. The rhetorical question is a device that allows us to explore some of the tensions and assumptions we become conscious of when trade unionists discuss the ‘shortcomings’ of CSMs, or when social movement activists talk about ‘the unions’.

Many of us have campaigned with and worked alongside people from CSM backgrounds for years. During that time, we will have frequently encountered mistaken views from CSM activists about what unions are and how they operate, often coupled with thinly veiled criticism dressed as advice about what they should doing. Frequently, we also hear about ‘the unions’, lumped together as if they are a homogenous group, with little regard for differences in political perspective, employment sphere, or industrial militancy. The equivalent in reverse would be to make pronouncements about how NGOs behave and what they do without differentiating between groups like War on Want and Global Justice Now, on the one hand, and Save the Children or Christian Aid on the other.

Even with the radical internationally-focussed CSMs, those that do not consider themselves as charities but campaigning organisations for systemic change rather than service-providers, we often find a disturbing immediacy in a great deal of their analysis. A bigger, historical, picture is often missing. Similarly, the notion that ‘all action is worthwhile’ often leads to an approach based on pantomime stunts and keyboard clictivism, divorced from any attempt to think through how to create the conditions necessary to change an outcome. The act becomes the end in itself. This can be coupled to a deified notion of ‘grassroots activists’ in which they become a kind of cool elite. An exclusive club of romantic superheroes. Who are these people? Why don’t they look like us?

Of course, it is true that many of the criticisms laid at the door of CSMs could apply, without too much amendment, to both the right wing (look busy but change nothing) and ultra-left (win union ‘action’, change nothing) tendencies within many trade unions.

If we actually want to building a mass movement for change, rather than just talk about it then the uncomfortable truth is that we don’t get to hand pick the people with whom we work. We have to challenge our misunderstandings and prejudices and we have a responsibility to really study and try to understand the tensions and differences between trade union methods and those of social movements.

On this site, there is an excellent and accessible resource by Marj Mayo. . It explains that ‘social movement ‘ and ‘civil society’ are contested terms; provides a theoretical underpinning for the notion that both trade unions and social movements are “… campaigning and negotiating within the framework of existing social relations, rather than strategising to overthrow these”. It notes that while trade unions use their power in the production process, CSMs use collective consumption as their principal lever. Differences in organisational structure and democratic accountability are highlighted. Mayo notes “…both types of organisation tend to attract particular types of activists to leadership positions. Dedication, determination and single mindedness are key qualities for leaders who are going to make a difference. But these are also qualities that don’t necessarily enhance the scope for alliance building and solidarity based upon mutual respect.

However, Mayo’s pointers for the future are key, part of which speaks to the role of the broad left in trade unions; that we need to draw out common threads and pull sectional interests together. It what we’ve always done. We need to overcome the differences in approach and reach out to those in social movements who share our desire to change society but have not been immersed in our political education, gained through engagement in workplace struggle.

Exactly how we do that is open to question.

Jake Burns



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