Stretching solidarity: Unions, caring and organising

Merrindahl Andrew, The Australian National University

John S. Ahlquist and Margaret Levi In the Interests of Others: Organizations and Social Activism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2013 (336 pp). ISBN 9-78069115-857-0 (paperback) RRP $45.95.

Any well-functioning group needs members who consider and act to protect the interests of others, even where this entails some cost to themselves. The questions of which people, and how much, and for whom, follow close behind. In Australia, principles of social solidarity and mutual dependence remain embedded in many of our institutions and beliefs. But they are no longer supported by political rhetoric. Instead our leaders appeal to, and have helped to create, a form of politics that that is suspicious of the claims of needy others and even sceptical about the possibility of genuine altruism.

At the same time, most people actually do act at their own expense in the interests of others, in jobs and volunteering roles, in families and organisations. Much of this effort is expended by women. Yet it seems that there is not enough care and altruism to go around. Alongside the intensification of paid work and the long-term trend of women’s increasing employment, we have not yet developed adequate ways to look after each other. Underlying inequalities, global insecurity and environmental hazards create countless pathways into suffering, and corresponding demands on our systems of support.

How are the institutions of social solidarity holding up under these pressures? Union membership in Australia has declined over recent decades, despite energetic efforts and some wins in particular sectors and the unions are, predictably, under attack from the Abbott Government. Partly as a result of some union leaders’ own misbehaviour, most public portrayals of unionism are negative, regardless of the many positive contributions that unions continue to make. At the same time, social support systems are being wound back. Services for women in particular are being defunded and undermined across the states and territories (Andrew 2014). In this context, the most pressing question is how to foster cultures and systems that enable a greater collective capacity to act in each other’s interests. The challenge is to promote more non-self-interested behaviour, while distributing the costs of this behaviour fairly. Institutions and organisations can advance both of these aims, but as we can see, so too can they entrench and legitimise self-interest at the expense of ‘others’.

Most people actually do act at their own expense in the interests of other.

In In the Interests of Others: Organizations and Social Activism, John Ahlquist and Margaret Levi examine a specific part of this problem, using some specialised social science techniques. But their findings do lead to some broader considerations. Most importantly, perhaps, they tell the stories of strong unions that not only protect the welfare of their members and do so without resorting to corruption, but also pursue social justice for those beyond their membership.

The book starts with the traditional problem of collective action as economists and other rational choice theorists pose it: why would a person act in a way contrary to their own interests, in order to contribute to a collective benefit, when there is no rational reason for them to do so? Like so much of economics, this question pushes aside consideration of caring labour, a vast range of actions that are undertaken in reality, on which all other actions depend.

Ahlquist and Levi acknowledge those cases where people with certain preferences (for example, they would prefer to live in a just and caring society) naturally self-select into charity or activist groups that work towards those aims. Their focus, however, is on organisations that people join for primarily economic rather than idealistic reasons, but which extend their scope of action beyond the core aims of improving member welfare, to embrace a broader ‘community of fate’. The authors focus on the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the United States and the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF), now merged into the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA). Members of these two unions have taken action at personal cost to protect the interests of others and to protest in solidarity against injustices occurring far from their workplaces. Why and how, ask the authors, were these unions able to move ‘beyond economism’?

On the West Coast of the United States, the Australian-born Harry Bridges helped to lead the bloody Big Strike in 1934, which achieved a single contract for all coast-wide ports and ended the degrading ‘shape-up’ system that let ‘walking bosses’ choose the day’s workers on the spot. Bridges then became the first president of the new ILWU when it broke away from the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) in 1937, a role he held for over 40 years. During this time the union adopted as its slogan the Industrial Workers of the World motto, ‘An Injury to One is an Injury to All’. Members took industrial action in protest against the Japanese invasion of Manchuria (1938–39), and against the federal government’s efforts to exclude Communists from the ports (late 1940s). After Bridges’ presidency, the ILWU maintained its expansive scope, closing ports, boycotting companies and refusing to handle cargo in solidarity with causes as diverse as laid-off Liverpool dockworkers (1997), the protests against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle (1999) and calls to end the war in Iraq (2008).

Exposure to the union shifted members’ beliefs, mobilising them by evoking solidarity with non-members.

Most tellingly, Ahlquist and Levi document the ILWU’s opposition to trade liberalisation, including the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). If the ILWU was strictly geared towards members’ prosperity it would support liberalisation, since liberalisation increases the volumes of trade. Indeed, in the 1950s and 1960s, the union did endorse freer trade, which Bridges believed would ‘strengthen the cause of peace’. As a former ILWU official notes, this was a principled position on Bridges’ part, but one that members found it easy to support out of self-interest. Yet from the 1980s, the ILWU began opposing trade liberalisation, stressing the negative impact that capital mobility would have on American manufacturing. The ILWU also maintained that denying foreign workers’ rights was an unfair trade practice. The authors argue that the union’s trade position is ‘a costly demonstration of its organizational commitments’. They show that exposure to the union shifted members’ beliefs (via ‘preference provocation’, to which I will return), mobilising them by evoking solidarity with non-members.

Similarly, under the leadership of ‘Big Jim’ Healy and Ted Roach the Australian WWF was able to achieve major gains in the 1940s and 1950s. The WWF overturned the dehumanising ‘bull system’ in which workers competed with each other for insecure work, and were often chosen on the basis of who looked strongest (‘the bulls’). They succeeding in having the despised Transport Workers Act 1928 repealed. This Act, known as the ‘Dog Collar Act’, required workers to hold a license under federal law (to have a ‘dog collar’). The threat of losing one’s license was used to enforce compliance with anti-union court rulings and prevent strike action. In 1947 this Act began to be replaced by arbitration, a system somewhat more favourable to the WWF. Finally, in the 1950s, the WWF managed to absorb the Permanent and Casual Wharf Labourers’ Union, which had been created in 1928 to recognise ‘volunteers’ hired by ship owners to replace union members striking against a repressive award.

As a result of these achievements, the WWF was able to deliver higher wages, better conditions and greater safety to its members. Internally, Healy and Roach introduced similar rules as the ILWU, limiting union leaders’ salaries and giving members the ability to recall officials. These measures helped to generate high levels of member participation in elections and branch affairs.

Like the ILWU, the WWF had a broad scope of action, extending beyond its members’ immediate interests. The WWF refused to load iron bound for Japan in 1937–38 and banned work on Dutch ships in solidarity with rebels in Indonesia in 1945. WWF workers in Sydney refused to load weapons for the French war in Indo-China (1954) and for the war in Vietnam (1967 and 1969). The union also took action in support of East Timorese people against Indonesia. For decades the WWF banned work on South African ships in protest against apartheid. Apart from industrial action, the union made efforts to support Aboriginal rights from an early stage, and continues to raise money to support humanitarian causes and workers in far-flung parts of the world.

Analysing these cases, Ahlquist and Levi find that leaders who succeed in solving key problems for their members, and secure improved material conditions for them, are then able to persuade members to act in the interests of those outside the union. Even beyond their individual tenures, these founders shape governance structures so that the union will continue to select politically committed leaders and evoke an expansive solidarity from members. But industrial success is not enough: the vital ingredient is a politically committed leader or leaders. The ILWU and WWF contrast starkly with the Teamsters, another US transport union that delivered great benefits to members. However, instead of using his strong position to persuade members to act in the interests of those outside the union, Jimmy Hoffa (and other Teamster leaders) extracted personal wealth as a price for industrial success.

The book title’s reference to ‘social activism’ may be slightly misleading.

This, in fact, is one of Ahlquist and Levi’s main findings: successful union leaders can extract ‘leadership rents’ from the membership in two forms—material benefits accruing to the leader, or, as in the ILWU and WWF, members’ willingness to go along with the leader’s demands for political action. Leadership rents form the basis of the authors’ game-theoretic modelling, which shows how group action in the interests of others can be rational: it need not rely on the vagaries of altruism, or collective madness. But it does need a strong leader, the kind who is not only of capable of turning ‘wharf rats’ into ‘lords of the docks’, but who is also morally and politically motivated to extend benefits beyond the membership.

In this respect, the book title’s reference to ‘social activism’ may be slightly misleading. Certainly, as Ahlquist and Levi describe it, the unions’ activism has been directed to social causes. But their leader-driven model is a far cry from most accounts of social movement activism, in which people together discover, construct and collectively amend their goals and in which systems of individualistic leadership are often challenged. Recognising that union members are diverse and bring their own political views to the union, the authors are thorough in demonstrating statistically what they call ‘preference provocation’, the increased willingness of ILWU members who have a longer association with the union to engage in social justice oriented action. Under the influence of motivated leaders, the union has become an institution capable of socialising members into progressive politics. But, as Ahlquist and Levi explain it, the process still starts with the strong, ideological leader, followed by members who are (initially at least) just materialistic.

More egalitarian or idealistic readers might be disappointed by a model that relies so heavily on the ‘great man of history’. In a recent panel discussion, political scientist Suzanne Berger observed that the book is framed by Lenin’s question of how the working class could move beyond narrow material interests to pursue transformative change (Watson Institute for International Studies 2013). Berger noted that Lenin, too, believed that workers without leaders would only ever come up with basic material demands. But she also pointed out that Marx believed workers themselves would learn from participating in organisations that the only way to satisfy even economistic ends would be by transforming the whole. A special leader was not needed for this process of learning.

In fact, despite the emphasis on leadership, a real insight in this book is its brief discussion, drawing a concept from Wood (2003), of the ‘pleasure of agency’ as a force driving preference changes. Acting for others, even for remote, unknown others, may satisfy people in ways not predicted by narrow conceptions of self-interest. And the process of engaging in these actions, even if initially undertaken in response to peer pressure or demands from the leadership, can lead to ideological commitments and beliefs about the possibilities of political change. Here the book moves beyond the transactional concept of leadership rents and begins to show how political activism might be not only tolerated but eventually embraced by members.

Processes of advocacy and policy change certainly lack the directness of strike action.

The possibility of unions becoming an engine of widespread social activism by acting in the interests of others may seem remote in the current Australian context. Unions are more often in the public eye for acting against the interests of their own members. Membership itself has declined over the last two decades from around 40 per cent in 1992 to just under 19 per cent in 2012, although it held steady for the three years to 2012 (Australian Bureau of Statistics 2012, 2013). But unions remain the strongest protection against a decline into dog-eat-dog industrial relations. Most notably, the unions’ massive Your Rights at Work campaign helped end Work Choices and the Howard Government (Muir & Peetz 2010).

Australian unions continue to be involved in progressive and innovative changes, especially those that accommodate the needs of women in the workforce. One example is the recent inclusion in the National Employment Standards of leave entitlements for people experiencing domestic or family violence (Schneiders & Hurst 2013). Another was the belated achievement of paid parental leave in 2011 (Baird & Williamson 2011, pp. 338–342). Both of these gains extend benefits beyond any given group of union members, and were reached only because broad coalitions of advocacy groups and academics worked for them together with unions.

This comes close to a model of social movement unionism, as espoused in Australia by advocates such as Amanda Tattersall (2011). Social movement unionism aims to reinvigorate unions by embracing social justice goals that go beyond workers’ immediate interests, and forming greater links with like-minded activist organisations. But, as Ahlquist and Levi point out, without fulfilling a basic economic function for such workers, it is unlikely that unions will then be able to provide workers with pathways for politicisation and a growing ‘pleasure of agency’. The authors are concerned, therefore, that social movement unionism risks losing the labour movement’s basis in workers’ real economic position and leverage. That basis may already be shaky in many workforces and industries, but this only sharpens the dilemma for union strategists.

Processes of advocacy and policy change certainly lack the directness of strike action. It is true, too, that those who stand to benefit from measures like domestic violence leave and paid parental leave lack the concentrated economic leverage of transport workers. They (we) are dispersed through the economy, often in ‘caring professions’ where strike action is deeply problematic. In these roles, our work is undervalued precisely because it our job to care about the interests of those who others do not care (much) about. These are the sectors ‘dominated’ by women, with little bargaining power in the traditional sense: education, health and community services. There have been recent tentative gains in Australia for workers in these industries but some of these have already been reversed by the Abbott Government (Harrison 2013). The intermingling of self-interest and altruism in these sectors constitutes a challenge both to union organising and to any neat divisions between ‘our interests’ and those of ‘others’.


Andrew, M. 2014, ‘Governments across Australia targeting women’s services’, ACTCOSS Update, issue 67, Autumn, pp. 7–8 [Online], Available: [2014, April 23].

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Harrison, D. 2013, ‘Abbott Government halts Labor’s $1.2b aged care scheme’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 December [Online], Available: [2014, Apr 23].

Muir, K., & Peetz, D. 2010, ‘Not dead yet: The Australian union movement and the defeat of a government’, Social Movement Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 215–228.

Schneiders, B. & Hurst, D. 2013, ‘Flexible work for violence victims hailed’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 February [Online], Available: [2014, Apr 23].

Tattersall, A. 2011, ‘The power of union-community coalitions’, Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy, vol. 19, no. 1 [Online], Available: [2014,  Apr 23].

Watson Institute for International Studies 2014, Book launch and panel discussion about In the Interests of Others by John S. Ahlquist & Margaret Levi, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, Webcast, 22 November 2013 [Online], Available: [2014, Apr 23].

Wood, E.J. 2003, Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Dr Merrindahl Andrew is a Senior Research Associate in the School of Politics and International Relations, Australian National University. With Dr Mitchell Whitelaw, she recently developed the interactive display The Institutional Harvest [], exploring the growth of women’s services and agencies and their (sometimes) demise.