Union organising: A referendum on collectivity

By EMILY ROSENTHAL. Written for Fightback’s magazine issue on Organisation. Subscribe to our magazine, or e-publication here.

Aotearoa has joined the global trend of high-profile union wins with the passing of Fair Pay Agreements and a precedent-setting judgment for Uber drivers.[1] [2] Now, how do we keep the momentum going?

For working people across the motu, the issues being raised about the cost-of-living crisis are nothing new. We have struggled with the price of food, housing, and transport since the radical de-regulation of the labour market.[3] Things are worse, but they are not novel.

And our response has remained the same for a generation – we must organise.

Our ability to meet and connect with people has been stymied through the pandemic. But it has given us an opportunity to reflect on our strategies.

The pandemic demonstrated the ability of Kiwis to hold collective, intrinsic values. It demonstrated how eager we all were to practice solidarity when our basic needs were being met.

Best-practise progressive campaigning – the foundation which our current labour wins sit upon – believes transformational systems change cannot rely on the previously relied-upon politics of fear.[4]

So, how do we organise?

The principles of organising remain the same, and key values of solidarity and whanaungatanga continue underpin the movement.

Working people are organising in companies and industries that were previously thought to be un-unionisable.

Amazon, Starbucks, and Apple continue to become organised despite concerted, expensive anti-union lobbying. [5] [6] [7]

The methodology of organising continues to shift with technological and social movements, and the unions who are least resistant to change are the ones experiencing novel wins.[8]

Technology is a prosthetic for organising, and is most effective when applied to our most recent understandings of heuristics and cognition.[9]

Heuristics are the neural pathways humans develop to make decisions. The more we understand how people make decisions, the greater our ability to organise.

Fundamentally, we have shifted in our understanding of how we communicate the importance of organising. In the most basic terms, this shift can be described as understanding the chasm between what we say, and what people hear.[10]

As a result, most organising resources have moved from reports, statistics, and basic facts. Previously these were touted as indisputable evidence for the benefits of organising. We thought that if people read and agreed with these, organising was the next logical step.

This belief operated on a flawed principle of the information deficit model, which assumes the gap between organisers and working people are a result of a lack of information or knowledge.[11]

In the wake of the pandemic and the most recent behavioural cognition analysis, advocates of leftist tactics and strategies realised that facts and reports did not change peoples’ minds.[12]

Storytelling and values

In order to shift the mindset of a worker or industry, we needed to organise with a more nuanced approach. This approach must comprise two key elements: storytelling and values-based messaging.

Values-based messaging engages working people’s deeply-held values to motivate concern and action. This involves leading with a trade union vision of the society we wish to inhabit, before stating the barrier to this vision, and ending with solutions of how to solve that barrier.

To organise, a greater effort must be made to develop resources and messaging that activates the intrinsic values of working people. For a lot of organisers, values-based messaging is still a largely under-used and misunderstood framework that is passed over for directives and myth-busting.

Story-based campaigning helps to create a narrative for people struggling to engage with a complicated concept, like collective bargaining.[13] Facets of the trade union movement are also applying this understanding to build rank and file power.[14]

The results of this approach speak to the efficacy of this method. Within the wider progressive movement, transformational change has been achieved through the crafting of a coherent narrative.

In Ireland, abortion rights activists had a resounding victory in a society with deeply entrenched Catholic values and restrictive laws.[15] The victory of this movement was largely attributed to the storytelling campaign used by abortion rights campaigners.[16]

Relational change, as theorised in the Water of Systems Change framework, is the category most relevant to building transformative union power.[17]

Crucially, this methodology must also be applied to internal organising within different wings of the trade union movement.

Internal power structures within the union movement obey similar dynamics to political parties. A deeper understanding has to be forged when building union power – a win for one union is a win for all unions.

Trade union movements will only continue to build power by utilising best-practice, evidence-based methods to organise. For the Left to fight back against rising fascism, we must build on these opportunities, demonstrating the power of collectivity.


[1] https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/historic-day-everyday-workers-fair-pay-agreements-bill-passes-third-reading

[2] https://www.employmentcourt.govt.nz/assets/Documents/Decisions/2022-NZEmpC-192-E-Tu-Inc-Anor-v-Rasier-Op-BV-Ors-Media-Release-25.10.22.pdf

[3] https://www.buildingabetterfuture.org.nz/decent_work_and_greater_work_life_balance

[4] https://academic.oup.com/bjc/article/62/5/1270/6702072

[5] https://www.amazonlaborunion.org/

[6] https://sbworkersunited.org/

[7] https://sbworkersunited.org/

[8] https://libguides.rutgers.edu/c.php?g=336780&p=2271927

[9] https://conceptually.org/concepts/heuristics

[10] https://www.theworkshop.org.nz/publications/how-to-talk-about-government-and-its-work-for-the-long-term-public-good-2022

[11] https://www.scidev.net/global/editorials/the-case-for-a-deficit-model-of-science-communic/

[12] https://ojs.victoria.ac.nz/pq/article/view/5296

[13] https://commonslibrary.org/reimagining-change-how-to-use-story-based-strategy-to-win-campaigns-build-movements-and-change-the-world/

[14] https://www.ei-ie.org/en/workarea/1326:building-union-power

[15] https://mobilisationlab.org/stories/how-powerful-conversations-yes-ireland/

[16] https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/3173574.3173931

[17] https://www.fsg.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/08/The-Water-of-Systems-Change_rc.pdf

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