Worker identity, social isolation and absence of community

Journal of Organizational Change Management

ISSN: 0953-4814

Article publication date: 4 July 2008



Faifua, D. (2008), "Worker identity, social isolation and absence of community", Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 21 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Worker identity, social isolation and absence of community

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Organizational Change Management, Volume 21, Issue 4

About the Guest Editor

Denise Faifua has an interdisciplinary background built on the fields of industrial relations, economics, public policy, and the sociology of organization and work. Her 2003 Research Thesis entitled “Willing and social work participation: socio-cultural rationalisation in industrial organisation” draws on the work of Karl Marx, Jurgen Habermas and Max Weber. She is a Lecturer at the University of Tasmania in Australia. She is a Committee Member of the Industrial Relations Society Tasmania Inc. and the Australian Labour Law Association Tasmania, and Honorary Editor for Industrial Law News CCH Tasmania. She is also a Committee Member with the National Tertiary Education Union, Tasmania Division, Australia.

This special issue on Community Unionism is entitled “Worker identity, social isolation and absence of community: challenges for the future.” The focus is on papers that offer innovative approaches or understandings of community-unionism in the context of increasing globalisation, individualism and liberal politics.

There are numerous reasons why this special issue is warranted. Community-unionism is not new but it is now being offered as a mechanism for trade union revitalization. The types of relationship formed in the linking of community, organizing and unions are multifaceted, the form varies empirically from country to country and understandings of what works and does not work are still evolving.

Those in support of community-unionism argue this type of unionism makes sense given: The analytical separation between family, community and work is an artificial one (Wenger, 2000); there is now less of a separation between the goals of community and traditional industrial parties (Jones, 2002); community-unionism is suited to the fragmenting and deregulating of global labour markets (Lipsig-Mumme, 2002); trade unions face increasing pressure to organize women, younger and older workers and people of different race and sexual preference (Faifua, 2006). However, there remain problems in mobilising strategic alliances between unions and community groups given the alliances are often only temporary and the relationship of these alliances to worker mobilization and recruitment is often not strong (Sadler, 2004).

Community, organizing and unions

In an attempt to define community-unionism it has been characterised in various ways; as putting the union back in the community, having unions work alongside or in alliance with communities, or having the community form the basis of the union. The different types of community unionism which have evolved are broadly explained by the strategies adopted and by cross-county variations in socio-economic influences.

In the UK, the term community-unionism is generally “regarded as the leitmotiv of a transformative new unionism” (Stirling, 2005, p. 56). The aim of organizing is to shift the focus from the provision of service to members to that of encouraging new membership. More specifically, the aim of organizing is to educate and empower members as union activists (Bronfenbrenner and Juravich, 1998; Heery et al., 2000). This in turn is believed to foster the collective identity of unionism in communities (Holgate, 2005, p. 464). By contrast, reciprocal community unionism seeks to organize via strategies that build union alliances and assist in the satisfaction of both community and union goals (Wills and Simms, 2004).

In the US discussion of what community-unionism is, has shifted from that of organizing or building unions to a focus on autonomous community-based unions. This type of organizing builds informally from groups of ethnic workers and or through geographic boundaries (Black, 2005, p. 25). Its autonomous community-based unions, the community of workers become the vehicle for union organizing (Fine, 2001). Indeed, in North America community-unionism is considered “an idea whose time has come” (Lynd, 1999, p. 192). Community-based unions in the USA offer the growing migrant community some protection given their continuing exploitation.

In Australia, the focus has largely been on the development of community-union alliances (Cockfield et al., 2005; Tattersall, 2006). With Ellem (2003, p. 427) suggesting community-unionism in Australia may have developed more or less from below, i.e. from a genuine concern for unionism rather than formal union policy.

This brief outline is of community, organizing and unions is neither theoretically nor geographically exhaustive as innovative approaches continue to evolve. For instance, according to Sadler (2004, p. 38) community-unionism may encompass the development of consumerist tactics which seek to engage the power of consumers, and corporate tactics which seek to engage the power of shareholders. Thus, the scale for community-unionism is also open to internationalism (Ryland and Sadler, 2008, this edition).

Worker identity, social isolation and absence of community

There is an implicit belief the mobilization of workers is crucial to the success of community-unionism. At a time when density or membership of traditional unions has declined there comes an opportunity to focus on the recruitment and mobilization of workers who are unorganized or open to exploitation;, e.g. casual workers, women, immigrants, the unemployed, and those living below the poverty line. There is also a belief there needs to be a consideration of the tensions between the interests of traditional union members and the interests of the unorganized and exploited.

Little research has been undertaken in the UK to understand this. Holgate (2005) notes the structural position of black, minority ethnic workers and migrant workers is well known, as is the racialisation of the UK labour market. While Colgan (1999) argues migrant workers form strong social networks that can be developed for worker mobilization.

By comparison in the US community-unionism research on the mobilization of the unorganized workers is more developed. Ness (2005) argues immigrant workers in the US organize themselves in the workplace even before unions come on the scene. They are eager to improve wages and working conditions through self-organizing. According to Ness (2005, p. 196), this worker mobilization is shaped by a sense of camaraderie in the workplace, a sense of isolation and an absence of options, and not based solely on ethnicity, religion, race, or ideology. In addition, Black (2005, p. 26) points out “community unions seek to organize the employed, unemployed, and underemployed; they press for change in the workplace and beyond, organizing around issues such as welfare reform, health care, jobs, housing, and immigration.” Thus, the focus of organizing extends beyond the traditional notion of organizing employees.

In Australia, the organizing of immigrants has little momentum though there is a rising awareness of situations or workplaces where the exploitation of migrant workers occurs (Australian Council of Trade Unions, 2006). Stories posted on this web site detail the isolation and absence of employment options available to migrant workers who enter Australia on s457 visas.

Apart from the cross-country differences outlined above there is the added problem that mobilization of migrant workers remains difficult given their identity and sense of belonging often remains with their home country. Fink (2003) points out many US migrant workers are culturally unaffected by their economically forced migration and thus their identity remains tied to their homeland. In particular, these workers can experience contradictory tugs of insider and outsider identity based on second-generation immigrant status; or they can avoid local worker identity and community aspiration by adopting a transnational identity. The issue of “who sticks with whom and under what conditions poses one of the classic questions […] as well as a continuing challenge to organizers on the ground” (Fink, 2003, p. 177).

A concluding point is the time is ripe to reconfigure organizing more generally and indeed to consider the issues around which unions choose to organize. Cornfield et al. (1998) argues the general loss of careers and long-term employment relationships provide unions with an opportunity to help workers rebuild their own meaningful communities. Heery et al. (2000) point out a central objective of organizing models of unionism is generally to promote the expansion of trade unionism amongst women, the young, and immigrant workers who are at the rough end of the labour market.

A special edition

The issue has been edited with the aim of providing readers with innovative approaches to community and organizing in the hope there will develop a better understanding of what encourages or impedes community unionism. The aim is to provide readers with insights into community unionism from different fields and or interdisciplinary perspectives. An additional interest for readers is the range of geographic sites covered in the articles; Australia, South Africa, UK, Taiwan, and the USA:

  • The journal starts with an article by Amanda Tattersall, which addresses the problem of conceptualizing community and unionism. Amanda proposes a framework for defining and evaluating community unionism as three discrete union strategies. She examines one type of community unionism – coalition unionism.

  • The second article by Bradon Ellem proposes community unionism is typically ill-defined and poorly explained. Bradon seeks to provide greater precision of terminology and context through a series of geographically-informed historical studies. Bradon argues this form of union 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 developed to explore the intersections between work, community and employment relations.

  • The third article by Monique Marks and Jenny Fleming demonstrates how social and labour rights are an ongoing challenge to unions and important international issue. They examine the formation of the International Council of Police Representative Associations (ICPRA) in South Africa in September 2006. Two of ICPRA’s aims are to assist and advise police unions all over the world and to provide the international police union movement with a voice for influencing policing futures.

  • The fourth article by Carla Millar and Chong Ju Choi explores the loss of worker identity and the liability of foreignness by examining the over-reliance on expatriate managers, psychic distance, and the exclusion of local managers and unions. They examine the detrimental implications for foreign enterprise and global organizational change arguing in favour of autonomous community unions.

  • The fifth article by Rebecca Ryland and David Sadler builds on the issue of internationalism. Rebecca and David present a case study of UNISON. One of the largest UK trade unions representing public sector workers is explored with the intention of identifying whether or not there are opportunities for the rebuilding of grassroots-led collective identities, solidarity and community beyond national borders.

  • Beyond the themes developed above there remain problems in organizing workers who are excluded from unions on the basis of class and race. The sixth article by Robert Tierney argues racist legislation and stigma in Taiwan leads to the job ghettoization of migrant workers and to their exclusion from unions by union leaders. Robert shows how through class struggle migrant workers in Taiwan have built their own non-union inter-ethnic coalitions.

  • The seventh article by Michael Hess is concerned with the impact “community” in two types of national context might have when it is applied to union organization. The contrast between western democracies and third world countries provides an interesting demonstration of the relationship between organizational change and contextual specificities. The article considers differences in how “community” impacts on unionism differ in these varied historical contexts.

  • A concluding article by Denise Faifua points out community aspiration remains a seed which might be sown and grow as a movement to change organizational forms of work and civil society, including that of unionism. Denise draws on the work of sociologists to promote ways in which to reinstate communal values and democratic reason in individuals, organizations and society writ large. While this challenges traditional union structures and ways of operating it has the potential to encourage worker mobilisation and activism and through this union organizational change.

The articles in this special edition address a number of issues on community, organizing and unions. The articles are from authors from different fields or interdisciplinary perspectives. This cross-fertilization of articles from different fields highlights a range of cross-country and cross-cultural issues with the overall aim of increasing understandings and encouraging innovative approaches. In this way, the special edition seeks to support the development of an important political union agenda.

Denise FaifuaGuest Editor


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