In this Sydney Ideas lecture, Professor Margaret Levi lecture traces the development of the labor movements' participation in social justice campaigns (global and domestic), comparing the US experience to the activities of Australian unions; and reveal how organisations can provoke members' willingness to act beyond material interest. Professor Levi was introduced by Geoffrey Garrett, CEO of the United States Studies Centre.
Almost all Australian unions ask members to contribute personal time and money or approve organisational resources for charitable purposes, electoral campaigns, and lobbying. Some also advocate political and social justice causes that seem unrelated to the achievement of better wages or working conditions. Historically, some Australian unions have even induced members to take costly personal actions that do not seem to have connection to the reasons people joined the union initially. The green bans of the NSW Builder Labour Federation in the early 1970's are the best known example. How were some unions able to do this, and what is about membership of an organisation that can change the beliefs of constituents about the nature of the world and challenge long-held views? In religious, political, and labour organizations, altruism is common enough, as are volunteering, political commitment, and unselfish service to others. But what is the unique structure of some organisations' culture and leadership that can produce member self-sacrifice on behalf of a wide range of political and social justice issues, and can indeed transform political preferences of the members?