The Other Side of Union Organising

Last week MPOWER (a research group in Massey University’s School of Management) organised a very pleasant forum on the topic ‘Strategic Employment Relationships’. From the call it was declared that two CEOs, two Human Resources / Employment Relations managers and two union organisers would attend the forum.

I actually liked the idea in terms of having different perspectives on a given issue. Isn’t it the thing we do as academics? To provide various theories on a specific issue and to weigh the balances in terms of their explanatory power. As a (critical) management scholar, believing that organisations are places of conflict and antagonisms due to the imbalance and abuse of managerial power, I wondered what would be the differences between a managerial and a unionist voice in the context of higher education and the public service sector.

If you know about the general approach of mainstream management textbooks or popular management books, after years of refining the ways of manipulating and engaging employees towards the ‘common aims’ of the organisation (we may refer to managerial control), you will encounter some magical words that are presented as the key for successful and cohesive organisations. These words (which we may refer to as discourses – disciplinary regimes, in other words) are extremely handy in order to paper-over the conflicts and antagonisms in the workplace. These might be ‘family feeling’, or ‘participation’ or ‘effective communication’ or even ‘downsizing’. Through these mechanisms, one can act on behalf of management and specifically for management but may present this as being in everyone’s interest. However, most of the time the language of management differs from those managed because of the inherent conflict that exists between them. With such an awareness I was expecting that there might be a good basis for some robust discussion between the management and the union representatives at this event.

At this point it is important that I must mention that I have only been in New Zealand for nine months and am still learning about the general manner, structure and history. I believe in the benefit of any kind of organised and un/dis-organised struggle/resistance in the workplace. That is why I also became a member of a union here nearly three weeks ago. I also research on resistance in the workplace. And, by referring to the discussion between management and the union, I am not thinking in terms of the 1970s views here, where strikes were common and usual, thus I was not expecting a sort of fight between management and the unions. However, I expected an acknowledgement about the antagonistic nature of the workplace and about the structural dynamics that interplay in the tertiary and public service sectors.

In the forum, the most striking issue, from my side, was the use of the same language by union representatives and management. This was acknowledged by the facilitator Mr. Richard Rudman (who is a practitioner). He questioned whether management and the union understand the same thing when they say ‘communication’ or ‘engagement’. This is particularly important to understand the power of the words at play. For this forum, the key word was ‘communication’. Accordingly, it seems that as long as the management communicate their vision, mission, objectives and the aims of the daily operations, there will emerge a very cohesive work environment. From a managerial perspective I understand that, but, for a union to utilise the same language I find quite perplexing. It seemed to me that the managerial discourse has infiltrated the unionist struggle. For instance, one of the union representatives mentioned that they give importance to the quality of workplace and in order to provide ‘benefit’ to both (management and labour, that is) the first issue was apparently ‘productivity’ and secondly having a high trust workplace. It was even suggested by one union representative that whilst management is a ‘good’ collaborator with the trade union in terms of the main issues (career development, personalised workplace, fair and secure workplace and others), the union’s real challenge was apparently engaging with their own members!

Another union representative mentioned three different organising models for unions (insurance unionism: the members get extra benefits for being a member, anger-hope-action unionism: focusing on raising tension at the workplace and to hope for action, relational unionism: creating a community that the employees feel comfortable and care about each other). He stated that the preferred model by his union is the ‘relational model’. I find this model perplexing because it reminds me of the standard managerial discourses of ‘networking’ and ‘relationship management’. These appear to have successfully infiltrated the discourse of the union.

In order to justify adherence to the relational model the union representative asked the question: ‘what if all the issues are resolved in the workplace?’ or more radically ‘what if there are no issues left?’ thus suggesting that the anger-hope-action model is no longer relevant. The logic here is that as long as there is no issue to act on, then we should as union members come together, be friends with each other and support each other. And, if there emerges a problem for one of us we may act as a community to be with her/him. Obviously there is nothing wrong with that. However, what I see here is the infiltration of managerial discourse individualising the collective legacy of unionism and governing the union mentality. So we hear the unions speech: ‘Productivity’, ‘a challenge to engage members’, ‘a relational model of organising’, don’t you think that all these sound like a manager talking? Aside from their titles we may think that there is no particular difference between what the management and the union said. Do you think that is ok?

This made me think more about the general nature of union and management relations. Please let me clarify, I do not find the relational model inherently problematic, it may have its place, I am not the one who can judge that on your behalf. But I believe we need to think about this as (critical) management scholars. That is what I try to do with this reflection. Also, I think we need to take the discussion up a level, to look broadly at the idea of unionism rather than just this specific case. We need to ask, are there not any further issues, as the use of the relational model suggests? If we academics or other public sector employees are well-paid and provided good working conditions then does it mean there are no further issues upon which to unite? I believe this is neither a recent issue, nor an easy one. I am also sure that the unions are currently working on serious issues such as rising student fees, the workloads of employees and the impact of wider issues of concern such as the battle for a living wage. Why then does unionism choose such a language utilised by managerialism in the form of productivity, relationalism and effective communication? Are we afraid of talking like united employees? Do we no longer have systemic conflict in our workplace? Or, do we accept organisational life as how it is, perhaps with a cynical ideology? This may be the reflection of what has happened to us over the past thirty years. Not just in New Zealand but all around the world for the people who are working on the basis of salaries / wages.

Since the pillars of neoliberalisation have strengthened, the collective identity has lessened, the confrontational nature of resistance behaviours have become lost and the trade union struggle seems to have turned into finding solutions for individual cases. I fear that the raison d’être of unions is lost. Or, do we need a new understanding that would incorporate ways of organising against ‘managerialism’ and ‘neoliberalism’. I guess that is the biggest question standing in front of us. Whilst the performance logic dominates the academies all around the world, where the universities adopt corporate models and where students are made to pay for their education, I guess we need to think again on ‘Strategic employment relationships’ and the objective of unionism. At least I would like to hear some points regarding these aspects in a forum like that.

Finally, I would to thank MPOWER organisers for providing such an opportunity ‘aiming to promote discussion and information exchange on developing better employment relationship management at a practical level’ and I really hope that this text would initiate further discussion with a critical perspective on whether or not ‘issues are resolved’.

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