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Contested communities: geo‐histories of unionism

Bradon Ellem (University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 4 July 2008




Despite being increasingly touted as the kind of fundamental transformation needed for union survival, “community unionism” is typically ill‐defined and poorly explained. This paper seeks to provide greater precision of terminology and context through a series of geographically‐informed historical studies.


Through explaining and synthesising the work of a number of scholars from different disciplines, the paper develops a framework for a “geo‐historical” analysis. It begins not with community unionism as such but with a more open exploration of the relationship between unions and social formations at, for the most part, the local scale. Empirical material, based on original qualitative studies, is presented for one industry, Australian mining, across different places and time periods but concentrating most upon the iron ore regions in Western Australia where recent struggles over union renewal and form have been particularly intense.


This paper argues two things about community unionism: that this union form is not without historical antecedents and, more importantly, that its structure, nature and prospects can be better understood if analysed through a number of concepts which geographers have recently developed to explore the intersections between work, community and employment relations. More needs to be done to explain not only the nature and emergence of community unionism but also the very real problems it faces in sustaining itself, let alone transforming union movements overall. The findings point to the varied forms which so‐called community unionism may take as well as to the challenges to its current forms, including from within the labour movement itself.


The value of the paper lies in its theoretical innovation, drawing on a range of disciplines, and its attempt to situate community unionism precisely – conceptually, historically and geographically.



Ellem, B. (2008), "Contested communities: geo‐histories of unionism", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 21 No. 4, pp. 433-450.



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Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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