Union peak bodies: a beacon of hope for all workers

The role of the Union peak body is to provide national or international leadership for all union members. The union movement structure in NZ and many other countries is to have several sector-specific unions, which then affiliate to a peak body. In some countries, there is more than one peak body,  for example left or right unions will want to group separately.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the late 19th century advocated the idea of ‘one big union’. Whilst there are the sector-specific issues facing certain professions, the general role of unions is to empower members to fight and win improved working conditions. One big democratic union where joined up thinking and an overall strategy is present would be far more effective. This could still have departments focusing on sector-specific issues, but they would not be separate from the main bigger group.

Industrial Workers of the World - Wikipedia

The reality is that unions grew up as guilds and craft unions in the 19th century, and this legacy is carried through to the present day. 19th and early 20th century models of unionism are expected to serve the interests of workers in the 21st century in an ever-changing workforce.

In this context, peak bodies exist as the national or international voice of organised labour. At a national level, peak bodies like the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) in NZ or the Trade Union Congress (TUC) in the UK are the main group who lobby government on behalf of all union members. They also are the main go-to for media wanting comment on workers’ rights issues generally. Like international union peak bodies, national peak bodies can suffer the same issue of disconnect from their rank and file membership. At times peak bodies can operate in a bubble and risk being captured by officialdom and the political establishment.

The major challenge with the structure of peak bodies is that their affiliate members are often in direct competition with each other. As mentioned in my earlier post, there are multiple unions trying to organise bus drivers in New Zealand. When briefly working for a union in the UK, one of my jobs was to talk to bus drivers asking them to join Unite union when most drivers on that site were members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) Union. When unions are trying to defend their declining empires in a Game of Thrones-style power struggle.

There is also a big verses small union battle, which sometimes is ideological but more often union officials battling to keep their patch. The small local union model is arguably more accountable as their officials are more accountable and their focus will be solely on their local members. The big unions argue that they have more resource and have more sway with employers. Having worked in both I have seen the strengths and weaknesses of both. In the big unions, they often have members from many professions or employers, it is easy for workplaces to be neglected if there is not a proper organising structure. Equally, in small unions, the sole focus can be bread and butter local issues and the bigger picture gets neglected, ultimately harming their members.

My view is that neither big or small unions function particularly well in the modern-day workforce. There are many notable exceptions to this where both do very good work. But few have found the balance of good local support for members, tackling national and international issues and crucially not wasting considerable time and resource fighting another rival union encroaching on their patch.

Were I to try and design a model that may possibly work, it would be to have the union peak body running all the back-office functions. Combining the legal, policy, membership systems, and even campaign work into one big back-office function would allow a concentration of resource and stop duplication across the movement. Peak bodies would also become the employer of all union staff and pay scales and other employment conditions of union workers would be consistent rather than certain unions in certain sectors paying more. The unions could maintain their separate brands and democratic structures and have their sector focus but would be working cohesively as a movement.

The role of the peak body is primarily to provide the vision for the movement. Their role is to head national campaigns that improve employment and health and safety legislation. And help affiliates work and campaign together to bring positive change. But more than this, the peak body should be a shining light to the whole movement. It should be advocating for the future of work to be one where workers are empowered and no longer exploited or alienated from the systems of production they work in. In short, this peak body’s need to be a beacon of hope and a movement for real change, not just a semi coordinated alliance of union organisations that are defensive and only try to maintain the status quo.

For unions and their peak bodies to achieve this, they need to radically re-think their structures and models. They also need a fairly fundamental rethink of how they operate in an evolving 21st-century workforce. The next post in this series will consider what some of these changes need to be.

Earlier posts in this series:

Why Trade Unionism

“Its a shit job, it pays shit money and if you don’t like it you can fuck off” – My introduction to bus driving

Tramways Union: From new driver to union president in 18 months

Go Wellington bus driver lockout 2008

Buses, bikes and pedestrians collide: Unions supporting health and safety

Tramways Union: Strikes, sex scandals and solidarity

Wellington buses now: how a local authority harmed public transport

NZ Public Service Association & the Soviet Union partnership plot

Public Service International – global unionism

Local Government – crucial and undervalued

Working in the Public Sector – the defence force goes on strike

Earlier Blog posts about Nick:

School uniforms and the young Nick Kelly

Why the Labour Party

Radical Socialism

University and Student Politics

The Iraq War

Student Fees

VUWSA Campaigns

Blogs and the Political Establishment

The Student Union Building

VUWSA President – the realities of leadership

Post VUWSA Executive

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