Personal Assistants Union: from an informal collective to organized solidarity

It was Friday afternoon, February 21st, and anyone turning up to the founding assembly of the Personal Assistants Union (Slovenian: Sindikat osebne asistence – SOA) could sense the emboldening spirit of a collective setting up its own organisation. Following several months of meetings and organising, personal assistants formalized their collective into a union, resulting from bottom-up organising and striving to be a progressive workers organisation. 55 founding members pledged to defend the interests of not only their own profession but rather the interests of the working class as such. CEDRA has been part of personal assistants’ unionising efforts since its beginnings.

Setting up the organisation was premised on the personal assistants’ collective’s wish of going beyond the standard union which serves merely as a (legal) service for its members-customers. Union’s Guidelines, therefore, lay out that they are organizing into a “solidarity-based workers’ movement – the union”. SOA is thus premised on two principles: workers’ solidarity and progressive politics as well as activism and members’ inclusion into the union’s functioning and decision-making.

Statue for solidarity

These axioms are also reflected in SOA’s Statue. Union’s leadership is collective (three-member Presidency itself part of a thirteen-member General committee) and elected in a way that ensures at least one-third representation with regards to gender, region and different employers. Decision-making is based on the principles of delegation (the leadership collects proposals from the membership and inquires about its mandate with them). The Statue also introduces online referendum, so that direct involvement of membership is enabled regularly instead of on assemblies only. The latter are planned on a yearly basis while the leadership has a three-year mandate in order to guarantee continuity. Membership involvement and education are further encouraged by limiting consecutive mandates thereby ensuring the rotation of members in leadership organs. 

SOA is a centralized organization: it has no formalised independent branches on the level of individual providers of personal assistance. This aims towards stronger solidarity between personal assistants. The situation among providers differ rather significantly leading to diverse standards of work potentially damaging union’s unity. Membership in SOA is not limited to personal assistants but is instead open to all working in this or neighbouring services. 

The personal assistants collective chose to become part of Svobodni sindikat Slovenije (SSS), itself incorporated into the Association of Free Trade Unions of Slovenia (Zveza Svobodnih Sindikatov Slovenije – ZSSS). SSS allows for a high degree of autonomy. Its advantage is also that it is not a union strictly focused on a particular branch of industry but is instead oriented towards those that cannot be easily classified. Since it doesn’t belong to any branch, it can cover all and is therefore not concerned with representing narrow interests of particular employees but can (potentially) speak for workers’ interests in general. However, with regards to its size and influence, SSS is at the fringes of the ZSSS. This also means that SOA is organisationally detached from closest co-workers in care and healthcare sectors. 

Liberalised sphere of personal assistance

For almost two decades, personal assistance has been provided by the non-governmental sector and financed by the state. Since the beginnings of 2019 the latter has been unsystematic and of limited extent. With the passing of new legislation in the area the service and with it the number of providers grew significantly. Because the new legal arrangement deregulated the provision of personal assistance (currently, the providers can also be self-employed individuals but the largest providers remain associations of disabled), the anticipated sum of annual public financing grew significantly. At the same time, several profit-seeking practices sprang up.

SOA identified its central antagonist: the competent Ministry which is like the state at large dependent on capital. However, probably the biggest danger for SOA is the liberalized provision of personal assistance. At the micro-level, it constitutes actors who in practice operate as personal assistants but whose interests correspond more to the viewpoint of capital then the workers (for example with regards to taxation of business entities). Centrifugal forces within the union will be SOA’s greatest challenge. 

The union managed to position personal assistance within the broader social relations.

Three conditions for success

SOA’s successful formation is due to three preconditions. 

  1. Informal collective

A small group of personal assistants, all working for one provider, organised monthly social meet-ups. The habit of attending meetings and a sense of collectivity have already been established. At the same time, the idea of a union was alive within the collective. 

       2. Progressive individuals

Individuals with some experience in social and political movements were part of the collective and they contributed to the spread of progressive understanding of workers’ organizing. Knowledge of Marxist theory facilitated the comprehension of personal assistance as a social service as well as the critique of union organising as it currently exists. 

        3.Objective conditions

The main barrier when organizing the union has been the physical separation of personal assistants who perform their service at the home of their users. A crucial benefit especially in comparison with other jobs in the service sector has been the attitude of employers. They were not antagonizing the union and in some cases even helped by informing some of the personal assistants they employ. The collective of personal assistants also had the support of many of its users. Worth mentioning is also a specific composition of the workforce: personal assistants are usually highly educated which is reflected in high levels of electronic literacy. 

Methods and approaches for making the step forward

In summer 2019, CEDRA joined the assistants’ informal meetings. In above-described circumstances, we used the method of improvised group interview to strengthen the group cohesion and active cooperation of the informal collective. At the same time, we were constantly working towards reinforcing the understanding of a union as a collective tool of the working class. During meetings, we drafted the union’s Guidelines consolidating both the progressive political stance of the union and its commitment to movement-oriented unionism.

The central challenge has been spurring the growth of the collective – not simply due to the fragmentation of the assistants’ workplaces but also because the original members of the informal collective were all employed by the same provider. Methods used were that of “organisational approach”; that is planned and systematic organizing on the level of the base. These methods often carry apolitical connotations but in our case, the core collective already held progressive views which its most active members attempted to spread among the growing membership. 

One month before the founding assembly CEDRA also organized an educational workshop. Its goal was to solidify and broaden the collective’s ideational foundations and widen the network of personal assistants by introducing them to the organisational methods. Without a capillary spread of organizing it is impossible to overcome the limitations (limited social links, in our case) and achieve a mass enlisting into the union. Involving the participants into systematic organizing was simultaneously a test of who can be seriously counted on with regards to the union’s functioning. 

The workshop also saw the start of collective devising of the Statue and Programme agenda (including the demands). In this way, democratic mechanisms were set up as a model for union’s functioning and the founding documents were shaped by and among the workers not at a distance from them. 

The central communication platform for SOA became the mailing list that the informal collective had used earlier. Despite the fact that some providers forwarded the information about the workshop to their employed assistants and that there is a group on a social network, it was the personal contact that contributed the most to the growth of the union: a telephone call, in-person meet-up or participation at one of the meetings. 

After the assembly: successful cooperation between personal assistants and CEDRA. 

The union as a political organisation 

SOA Statue’s opening article states that the union is a “political, yet non-partisan organisation”. This sentence gave rise to many questions and opened the debate about the nature of unions and their functioning as well as about the workers’ struggle at large. Capital’s movement (production in separate enterprises and sectors) and state-sanctioned political administration drive unions into economism –  insulating themselves into their own selfish limits and focusing narrowly on working conditions, wages in particular. 

This trend is palpable despite principles to the contrary being enshrined in the union’s founding documents and consciously propagated by its leadership. SOA which is committed to workers’ solidarity, therefore, has to be a political organisation since it is championing the interests of the working class as a whole. And the situation of the working class is determined politically, primarily by the state enforcing the interests of capital. A union that overlooks its political nature therefore confines itself to the narrow framework of the supposedly self-evident, which fragments the workers’ movement. 

At the founding assembly, nearly half of all participants volunteered to help retail workers who are in a very difficult position. However, words are cheap. It will be SOA’s practice that will indicate whether the union will really be able to act as a progressive workers organisation. It is constant centripetal forces in the form of organising, education and activation that can (especially when new members join) pull the membership towards the core and contribute to the formation of a solidary workers’ movement.  

Written by Boštjan Remic

Translated by Jaša Veselinovič

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