The Challenge of ‘Whole Worker Organising’ in Struggles for Social Justice

by Jane Holgate

Effective trade union organising needs to pay greater attention to the social and cultural as well as economic influences on working people.

First published: 29 December, 2014 | Category: Class, Employment & Welfare, Labour movement, Racism

Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider[1] is a welcome corrective to the missing accounts of radicalism in the English working class. Satnam Virdee describes the ‘whitewashing’ of working class history where the analytical lens of class was largely blind to the affects of race, racism and racial discourse. Virdee’s adoption of a different lens allows for a more sophisticated analysis whereby the intersection of race and class brings to light those hidden accounts of the role of racialised minorities in the making of English working class history.

Reading this book immediately brings to mind another classic text revealing missing voices, this time of women who similarly have been silenced from accounts of struggles against exploitation and discrimination. In Hidden From History, Shelia Rowbotham[2] provides a brief overview of 300 years of women’s oppression and the fights against it to highlight the extent to which the agency of women had, for centuries, been invisible in historical accounts. In putting together stories of the radicalism and struggles of women - both in the workplace and in wider society - Rowbotham considers how in doing so it prompted, for her, a rethinking and re-questioning of the past. What had previously been taught in historical explanations of work, employment and struggle, was very much in need of revision as these missing voices were uncovered.

Satnam Virdee’s book thus opens up an opportunity to debate and reconsider why the accounts of marginalized groups whether they are women, racialised minorities, people with disabilities or people who are lesbian, gay or trans still tend not to be analysed using a form of analysis that recognizes the inter-relationship of multiple forms of oppression. Many of the debates about race, class, identity and the politics of difference, and how they intersect, have largely taken place outside the confines of the trade union movement. Yet analysing theoretical discussions in these areas could provide insight into the practical implications that the intersection of class-based and culture-based claims might have for trade union organising of racialised workers (and other marginalised groups). While Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider contains some accounts of the ‘colour-blind’ nature of trade union attitudes to the organizing and integration of minority workers, analytical work in this area is limited (as is the case for women and other minority groups).

In part, it is argued here that these omissions are rooted in the fact that Marxism and trade unionism has presumed that the most significant social actions are defined by class relationships rooted in the process of production and, by and large, all other social identities are considered secondary in constituting collective actors.[3] Trade unions are typically characterised as organisations established to represent the collective interests of workers in the workplace. Thus the aim of trade unions is, primarily, to negotiate with employers and governments to defend and improve the conditions in which workers sell their labour to capital.[4] This basic economistic conceptualisation of trade unionism has tended to prioritise contractual terms and conditions over wider social justice claims such as the right not to be discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, disability, age or religion. While this may be an internally consistent position based on a narrow view of capital/labour relations and the exploitation of workers, it nevertheless leads to intra-class divisions becoming of secondary importance leading to the marginalisation of minorities or oppressed groups within the union movement.

Yet, division within the working class needs to be central to any discussion about how workers challenge exploitation and inequality in all its forms. Historically, this debate has focused around the theorising of the primacy of either class or ‘race’ or gender in the practical struggles against inequality rather than the nature of their intersections. In practice, of course, trade unions have had a wider social agenda and have, at times, also played significant roles in wider social justice issues for example, in South Africa over apartheid and in Poland in the 1980s but generally, issues of equality, cultural recognition and wider social issues have always tended to come secondary to the primary focus on pay and working conditions.

For Anthias and Yuval-Davis,[5] the dichotomisation of the ‘race’/class debates has exposed many gaps in this form of theorisation and, in doing so, raises a number of questions that are relevant when thinking though the organisation of workers from minority/oppressed groups. As an example, they argue that ‘the heterogeneity within the ethnic minority population…cannot be accounted for by seeing racialized groups as one class’. They hold that different minority ethnic groups experience varied structural positions in the labour market which are differentiated by factors such as gender and legal status (as well as class), making it difficult just consider minorities as a distinct class stratum. Anthias and Yuval–Davis therefore ask us to ‘look beyond the economy’ in order to understand the position of ethnic minorities in society because racism on its own is not an adequate explanation for the economic position of black and minority workers:

Indeed what appears in the guise of ‘race and class’ is a number of heterogeneous questions about class formation, race formation, racism, exclusion and economic and social position and disadvantage. These questions cannot be collapsed together under the issue of the links between race and class. These involve looking at wider social processes, in terms of economic, representational, political and discursive conditions and of course also to relate to other divisions, such as gender. (p. 75)

The wider social processes referred to by Anthias and Yuval-Davis are not accounted for in many of the aforementioned theorisations on race, but are of central importance to today’s struggle for social justice if we are to organise and integrate more workers into the union movement. In the 1950s and 1960s the New Left and new social movements emerged to confront traditional left politics that many felt were not providing answers to the progression of social justice. While the ‘old’ (socialist) social movement represented the classical Marxist tradition of the class struggle and the proletarian revolution, the ‘new’ social movements were a critical reaction to the failure of class politics, focusing on ‘race’, sexuality, and gender inequality. It is this divide between ‘old’ and ‘new’ that has led to the theoretical separation of culture (including gender, ‘race’, identity, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc.) and economy, and which now needs to be overcome.

In 1979, a major critique of this political period was written: Beyond the Fragments[6] - another classic like Hidden from History called for a rethink of political organisation so as not to marginalise the voice of oppressed groups. The authors were concerned with exploring the divisions of the new social movements arguing for a radical review of the structure and organisation of liberation politics. The writers contended that the feminist tradition provided a theorisation of the personal and the political, which demonstrated that the cause of oppression was both social and economic. The contribution of Beyond the Fragments to the culture/economy debate was that, while its main criticism was of the left and the way that it resolutely stuck to its preoccupation with class, it also acknowledged that there were weaknesses inherent in the new social movements.

One writer who has attempted to overcome this weakness has made a distinction between a ‘politics of identification’ and a ‘politics of identity’.[7] Avtar Brah attributes the values of individualism and personal choice to the ‘politics of identity’, or lifestyle politics, whereas the processes of collective activism and liberation are ascribed to the ‘politics of identification’. The latter she suggests is a form of political activism that encourages individuals to look outwards rather than inwards where ‘we learn to see ourselves as part of many imagined communities’. (p.93) The politics of identification thus recognises the importance of difference in practical politics, but does not reify it in the way that the politics of identity is apt to do. In this respect, a politics of identification, whereby respect is afforded to the needs of different groups, provides practical opportunities for collective communities, or social movements, to act in coalition over struggles for social and economic justice.

So what does this all mean in the context of discussion about the politics of class? Virdee ends his short essay by saying that, ‘any progressive political projects that attempt to invoke notions of the people today must actively seek to both acknowledge this contradictory and complex history of racism, and plot ways of moving beyond it and its structuring effects in the present conjuncture’. This echoes the work of Manning Marable, writing in Beyond Black and White,[8] where he makes clear the continuing importance of the politics of race and class in practical politics when he ends his book with the words of CLR James, written in 1938:

…the race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of racism is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental. (p. 229)

As a basis for understanding the contemporary politics of resistance and the importance of reviving trade union organisation, this observation is as relevant today as when it was first written. As Marable points out, with a philosophy reminiscent of CLR James, there is therefore a key question facing the organised labour movement: 

The long-term question confronting organised labor, however, is whether it will merge the interest of the black freedom movement with its own agenda for social reform. “Race-base” politics cannot address the basic economic interests and problems within the African American communities, and the majority of black workers implicitly understand this. But organised labor will not make its case for solidarity to minority workers unless it develops the capacity to address class and racial issues simultaneously.[9]

The globalising nature of capital and its disabling effect on labour requires a rethinking of labour movement strategies that can assist in responding to the constantly changing structures of society and the workplace. The redefining of work and the insecurities created by temporary, part-time and contingent labour challenges the traditional form of trade union structures and spatial organisation. Without some consideration of what constitutes the core constituency of trade unions and what is meant by the workplace, trade unions will, however inadvertently, exclude a substantial numbers of workers who need their protection. An increasing number of low-paid workers have no fixed workplace and are transported daily to different jobs. How are trade unions, which focus on the workplace, to organise these workers? How are migrant and undocumented workers who are ‘invisible’ to be accommodated in the struggle for social justice? Workers arriving as immigrants in the UK from Eastern Europe are not ‘black’ but they become racialised as a result of the oppression they experience. How are these workers accommodated when they don’t ‘fit’ the self-organisational structures of trade unions? The spatial structures and organisation of trade unions were established at a time when capital operated within greater temporal and spatial constraints than it does today. How are trade unions facing the challenges and opportunities provided by the consequential growth of new global/local networks? 

These are some of the big questions facing trade unions today as they struggle to rebuild themselves after years of declining membership and influence. Jane McAlevey,[10] academic and long time union/community organiser, provides one answer to these questions, and that is through the concept of ‘whole worker’ organising. This takes the approach that when organising workers into trade unions their relationships outside the workplace are as important as their relationships inside the workplace. The need to understand and harnessing the power of workers relationships before, during, and, after work is at the centre of this approach. In concluding an article where she applied this strategic approach in a successful union organising project she said:

So much of the debate around union organizing strategy never leaves the realm of jargon and abstraction, it’s important to spell out what organizing the ‘whole worker’ means. Life was changing for these people. They were constituting themselves as a class. They were bargaining with their bosses, not begging.  They were taking over government meetings and running them themselves.  And they were winning everywhere. They were fundamentally building workers power, and it was an experience of class, race, faith, and personal liberation’.

For me, then, Satnam’s Virdee’s book offers the reader an understanding of the structuring power of racism throughout society, but also a recognition that an approach to mobilising workers into collectivities must take into account the way that different oppressions intersect in different ways and impact differently on the way that workers live their lives. Thus, to be effective trade union organising needs to be responsive to this issue paying greater attention to the social, cultural as well as economic influences of working people.

This article is part of our series, Race and Class in Britain.

Dr Jane Holgate is Professor of Work and Employment Relations at the University of Leeds Business School and member of the research Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change.


[1] Virdee, S. (2014). Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider. London: Palgrave McMillan.

[2] Rowbotham, S. (1975). Hidden from History. 300 Years of Women's Oppression and the Fight Against It. London: Pluto.

[3] Buechler, S. and Cylke, F. (1997). Social Movements. Perspectives and Issues. California: Mayfield Publishing Company.

[4] Flanders, A. (1972). 'What are trade unions for? in' in McCarthy, W. (ed.) Trade Unions. London: Pelican, pp. 26-34; Hyman, R. (1971). Marxism and the Sociology of Trade Unions. London: Pluto Press.

[5] Anthias, F. and Yuval-Davis, N. (1992). Racialized Boundaries. Race, Nation, Gender, Colour and Class and the Anti-Racist Struggle. London: Routledge, p. 91.

[6] Rowbotham, S., Segal, L. and Wainwright, H. (1979). Beyond the Fragments: feminism and the making of Socialism. Oxford: Blackwell.

[7] Brah, A. (1996). Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London: Routledge.

[8] Marable, M. (1995). Beyond Black and White: rethinking race in American politics and society. London: Verso, p. 191.

[9] Marable, M. (1998). Black Leadership. Four Great American Leaders and the Struggle for Civil Rights. Middlesex: Penguin, p. 191.

[10] McAlevy, J. (2003). 'It Takes a Community: Building Unions From the Outside In'. New Labor Forum. Spring.

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