An Old Idea Whose Time Has Come Again

An item from the latest newsletter of the New Unionism Network:

U-Cubed: A new model for occupational networking?


Union geeks (you know who you are!) have been intrigued by the development of U-Cubed. It’s unlike anything seen before. Unemployed people in the USA are signing up and then linking themselves (if & when they choose) to others with the same zip code. Together, six members form a cube. If they like, this group can then join up with eight other cubes to form a ‘neighbourhood’. And three neighbourhoods can join to form a ‘power block’. It’s an ingenious way of bringing people together around occupation (in this case the unemployed) and location (per zip code). This builds community and voice in a natural way, and encourages activism at the base in a way that traditional representative structures find difficult. They’re only a few months into the experiment, with about 2500 members, so it’s too early to learn any lessons. But for those interested in building occupational or sectoral networks within their union, here’s an intriguing experiment to follow.



Both Ur Union of the Unemployed (a project of the International Association of Manufacturers and Aerospace Workers–IAM),  and a variety of proposals by the New Unionism Network, are reminiscent of past experiments in libertarian labor organization.

The Owenite unions in the UK, for example, organized unemployed tradesmen to produce for mutual exchange back in industries where craft production with individually affordable tools still predominated.

During the CIO organizing strikes of the 1930, strikers sought the support of Unemployed Councils in order to undercut employers’ efforts to create dissension between strikers and the unemployed, and make it harder to recruit the latter as scabs.

Today some left-wing thinkers in the AFL-CIO and SEIU propose decoupling unions’ membership base from NLRB-certified bargaining units.  The idea is that any worker who wants to join a union should be free to do so, even if no union local has been certified in his workplace.

This is compatible with a couple of other ideas.

First, the “minority unionism” of the I.W.W., promoted by former General Secretary-Treasurer Alexis Buss.  The idea is that a minority of workers in a workplace can function as a union, even when they don’t have the numbers to win an NLRB certification vote.

Second, the idea of unions and labor federations as bases for networking, social support and mutual aid.  I believe this model, of the union as professional or trade association, is more popular in France.  As recounted by E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class and by historian Bob James,  the boundary between mutuals and friendly societies on the one hand and labor unions on the other was quite blurry through the mid-19th century.  Mutuals offered sick benefits, burial insurance, and financial support for the unemployed.  The state frequently repressed them because the latter service was functionally indistinguishable from a strike fund.  To the extent that unions return to the friendly society model, they can serve as a vehicle for mobilizing subsistence production in the informal and household economy and thereby reduce labor’s dependence on full-time employment.  In so doing, they can function as a wage-pooling mechanism and spread the worst costs and risks of unemployment over the entire population of wage-workers, and thus cushion the severity of unemployment for any individual worker.

In addition, the ongoing implosion of capital outlay costs required for industrial production, resulting from the desktop manufacturing revolution and the shift back to affordable general-purpose machinery, means that the Owenite model of organizing craft production outside the wage system may once again be feasible.  Cooperatives were fairly successful as union weapons for organizing alternatives to the wage system when production relied mainly on individually owned tools, and became less successful with the shift to factory production using expensive machinery.  To the extent that micromanufacturing is a shift back from expensive machinery to affordable tools, the possibilities for unions organizing self-employment outside the wage system may also be experiencing a change for the better. (See my earlier review of John Curl’s history of cooperatives for more on this.)

1 Comment An Old Idea Whose Time Has Come Again

  1. AvatarPHJ

    A request from the floor: I think this is a really interesting comment. It’s incredibly condensed, though. (Woe to we poor workers who have to try and understand academic prescriptions for labour). Would you care to unpack it a bit? I’d be really interested in reading more of your thoughts on this subject.

    – A Newunionism Network member

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