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Power in a Union: Why Attacking Grassroots Unions Is Against Labor Values



Savannah Benson


If you have been on Twitter recently it is hard to ignore the discourse surrounding unionism. Specifically, discourse surrounding the Australian Unemployed Workers Union (AUWU). Now it needs to be acknowledged that I am not defending behaviour by certain members of the AUWU’s leadership or poor running of certain aspects of the union. Abuse in any form must not be tolerated. This article is not a defence of the AUWU, but instead aims to address criticism levelled against grassroots unions and the assumption you have to be a “real” union to gain legitimacy.


There has been plenty of legitimate criticism of the AUWU’s leadership, however, the criticism I wanted to address that has been made by those opposed to the AUWU is that it is not a “real” union, one who is not affiliated with the ACTU or registered with the (unfair) Fair Work Commission. This criticism is harmful and undermines grassroots rank-and-file organisation of individuals and workers to fight for better conditions for themselves and their members. Instead we should be encouraging more unions. Student Unions, Tenants Unions, Unions for the unemployed and so on are not trade unions, or “real” registered unions. Nevertheless, these unions deliver real outcomes for those they represent.


These unions help people to collectively bargain, people who face real power imbalances. For example, the German Tenants Union representing three million renters in Germany has seen successes organising and representing private renters. They campaigned successfully for Berlin's City Council to exercise the right to match private offers when apartment buildings come onto the market, and to match private offers to take them into municipal ownership. This is a significant achievement for tenants who face a significant power imbalance with landlords. These unions are essential in representing those who are historically disempowered, empowering them to organise for better outcomes.


Unionism is a core part of Labor Party Values. The ALP must reflect its strong union values by encouraging and supporting greater union organisation even for grassroots unions who do not meet the “real” definition of a union. Trade Unions themselves started from rank-and-file grassroots organisations as early labour organisations themselves would usually only have 20-60 members. Nevertheless trade unions grew into larger organisations, seeing significant achievements in improving conditions for their members. The ALP must not forget these origins and ensure that it does not discourage grassroots organisations. The risk instead is that the Labor Party, which is traditionally seen as the party of unionism could lose people to other organisations and parties which claim to support these grassroots unions and organisations. The ALP is a party with its origin in union organisation, and this should not be forgotten. Members of grassroots unions should be encouraged to join the ALP, actively encouraging rank-and-file activism and political organisation.


As rank-and-file ALP members we need to ensure grassroots activism and organisation both within and outside our party.


Savannah Benson is Co-Convenor of the ACT Young Labor Left and Young Fabians Secretary. Twitter


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