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Labour unions and solidarity in times of precarity

Labour unions have traditionally been at the forefront of the struggle to improve job security, pay, and working conditions. The widely observed growth in precarious work in recent decades is a result of union weakness, as they are increasingly likely to lose these battles. Many, including scholars in the influential dual labour market school of thought in Comparative Political Economy, have argued that unions often promote the job security of their ‘insider’ core members at the expense of more precarious ‘outsiders.’ It cannot be denied that unions sometimes accede to employer demands to shift jobs to non-standard, insecure contracts and deregulate labour markets, or neglect the interests of precarious workers. However, these exclusive strategies are often developed under the frame of competitive collective bargaining and are rarely sustainable in the long term. Where core workers do not show solidarity with vulnerable workers, they often undermine their own bargaining power through allowing lower-cost competition to expand. On the other hand, ensuring equal treatment for all workers, particularly those in unstable work, is essential to the long-term viability of the labour movement.

Labour unions increasingly seek to regulate precarious work and represent precarious workers, both to protect their members’ working conditions and to pursue broader commitments to equity and social justice. They succeed in these objectives when they can mobilize power resources derived from inclusive institutions and inclusive forms of worker solidarity. These factors are complementary: inclusive institutions make it easier for unions to organize and represent diverse groups of workers, while unions rely on inclusive solidarity to mobilize the broad forms of collective action necessary to sustain or rebuild encompassing institutions. In this sense, employment precarity is both an outcome of and a central contributing factor to a mutually reinforcing feedback relationship between labour market, welfare state, and collective bargaining institutions; worker identity and identification; and employer and union strategies.

Most crucially, grounding labour power in inclusive solidarity depends on two factors: first, building or sustaining coordinated bargaining within the labour movement; and second, coalition building across unions and among organizations representing workers and their communities.

Growing popular support for far-right populist parties and candidates in Europe and the US demonstrates the growing hold that exclusive forms of solidarity, based on more narrow forms of worker identity and identification, have on workers in the Global North. One explanation traces these trends to economic insecurity among workers experiencing stagnant or declining pay, working conditions, and job security. This insecurity encourages a backlash against the elite institutions and individuals promoting trade liberalization, as well as against groups of precarious ‘outsiders’ viewed as competitors for increasingly scarce jobs. Labour unions can combat these divisive politics, by building inclusive forms of collective action that incorporate migrants, minorities, and other labour market outsiders most at risk of experiencing precarity and exploitation at work.

However, this requires increasingly creative collective action that both looks upwards to closing gaps in welfare state, labour market, and collective bargaining institutions, and looks inwards to building inclusive solidarity across the workforce and within the labour movement.

Featured image credit: Rail trafffic train by geralt. Public domain via Pixabay.

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