Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Organising for a better future for work

Unions must reach outside their comfort zones and develop an inclusive collective voice so that workers can organise effectively in a hostile political environment.

Becky Wright Simon Sapper
1 March 2019
March for the Alternative, London, 2011.
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CGP Grey/Flickr. (cc by)

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

Unions21 is delighted to participate in this discussion regarding the future of work. Having had the opportunity to read through earlier contributions, we were especially pleased with the emphasis on governments absconding from key responsibilities, as highlighted by Alison Tate and others. We also further endorse Shawna Bader-Blau’s emphasis on the need to approach people as both workers and citizens simultaneously. These and other contributions feed into the bottom line for our own contribution in this piece, which starts with the premise that governments should act to establish a framework for social responsibility that embraces concepts of fair work, but they cannot be reliedupon to do so. And since governments cannot be relied upon to act independently, our goal should be to organise as both workers and citizens in support of a better future for work.

This starting point is shared with a number of earlier contributors, such as Han Dongfang, Lupe Gonzalo, Reema Nanavaty and Elizabeth Tang. We see no incentive strong enough to guarantee that policy-makers do the ‘right’ thing.

Recent experiences in the United Kingdom have underscored the challenges which need to be overcome in order to organise effectively in defence of precarious workers and migrants. As other contributions to the roundtable have illustrated, including Emily Kenway, Alejandra Ancheita, and Luis C.deBaca, there have been some promising signs of progress in some cases and locations. It is worth emphasising, however, that these examples have frequently proved to be difficult to reproduce or scale up elsewhere. In the United Kingdom, these challenges can be primarily traced to a hostile political environment, along with the strategic choices of key stakeholders.

The fall (and rise?) of unions

Trade unions have been on the decline in the UK ever since former prime minister Margaret Thatcher confronted them head-on in the 1980s. At the beginning of that decade, trade unions had nearly 13 million members. Their lists have since fallen to 6.23 million, a drop in density from 52% of all UK employees to 23%. Collective bargaining coverage, meanwhile, has fallen from 36% of employees at the turn of the millennium to 26% today.

Trade union membership in the public sector continues to surpass – by a wide margin – that found in the private sector. This discrepancy hasn’t changed even though the former has shrunk dramatically over the past decades while the latter has become engorged. To cap it all, union members are increasingly aged. Density amongst the youngest cohort is only around 5%. Yet the labour market is the tightest it has ever been.

You would imagine that, with swathes of the UK economy now unorganised, unions would coordinate their approach and systematically pool resources to meet these political and economic challenges. For various reasons, forging common front has not been a priority. Instead, significant resources have been directed towards union mergers, legal challenges (e.g. McSherry and Lodge v BT or Farrer v Uber), and creating more sophisticated relationships between unions and employers in specific high-density sectors.

In cases where a collective worker voice has been established, the prospects of employers acting responsibly have increased. However, these cases are now rare in the UK’s highly atomised economy. In an environment where over 95% of all UK companies now employ less than 10 people, how can collective voice be encouraged, nurtured, and maintained?

Organising outside traditional sectors

This is where we are noticing a new model of collective action emerge, with a number of unions reaching out in innovative ways. The Independent Workers Union of Great Britain and United Voices of the World (UVA), for example, have undertaken actions amongst gig economy workers in major urban centres that have been loud, joyfully assertive, and widely reported. Unite has established a community-based section, the GMB is making strides among the bogusly self-employed; Community has reached out to the genuinely self-employed; Equity has had success in the fringe areas of performing arts; and the Pharmacists’ Defence Association Union in supplanting a “fake union” within Boots plc. And many more.

What sets these sorts of actions and efforts apart from more traditional activity is the arguably oldest of organising premises – you need to go to where people are rather than where you want them to be. All of the above examples illustrate this in a different ­– and new – way.

For the IWGB and UVW it is a question of style and structure. Their members are working in precarious circumstances designed to disempower workers. The unions rely on streamlined decision-making oriented towards demonstrable actions to physically challenge this notion of disempowerment. This has three particular effects: 1) it gets noticed, and therefore has extended reach; 2) it disconcerts employers, a necessary step on the road to engagement; and 3) it builds self-confidence amongst the workers. IWGB and UVW are operating in conventionally hard-to-recruit areas, yet these are the areas in which there has been noticeable employment growth (though now in slight decline) over the last six years.

Unite’s community section seeks to organise those not necessarily in any sort of work. Part of this attempt to apply organising techniques to the community as opposed to workplaces is to extend the reach of trade unionism and (obviously) Unite in particular. The range of services provided includes cv and application letter writing, debt counselling, interview training, welfare, payment utilities and tax advice. This is not dissimilar to services that may be available through other community support groups – but in this case they come through the organisational and political prism of the union.

The GMB is active in some of the same areas as the IWGB, such as Uber, and has taken a particular interest in those who are bogusly designated as self-employed. This is a subset of the gig economy sector, and the union has developed an exceptional track record in litigation to secure a reclassification so that these workers are legally recognised as such. (Readers will know that in the UK currently, there are three categories of working people – the self-employed, the employed and workers. Workers have a legal platform of rights and protections but to a lesser degree than employees).

IWGB and GMB represent two different organisational models in the same industrial space – the former would highlight agility and speed, whereas the ability to deploy significant resources flexibly is a deciding positive actor for the latter. But there is scope for both to continue to increase their memberships.

Community, meanwhile, have sought to engage with the growing numbers of genuinely self-employed by, in 2017, partnering with Indycube – a resource organisation for the self-employed – to create “the first Union for freelance and independent workers in the UK”.

Equity, a union for performers, focuses on marginal workers in their sector, while pitching to employers the added value of a stable employment relationship with active involvement and a degree of underwriting by an independent union. The weakness of employers’ organisation in the UK is a major impediment to sector level bargaining, but in this instance, the union has facilitated a more co-ordinated approach by employers to realise benefits for their members.

Finally, the Pharmacists Defence Association Union (PADU) used complex UK recognition laws to displace an incumbent but non-independent rival. Such a move was unprecedented, and PADU needed to work hard to secure the necessary turn-out in crucial legally-binding ballots on the issue.

The PADU campaign, like all the examples cited here, are demonstrations of effective engagement with target groups of people. In each instance success has been predicated on having the means and the desire to truly understand what the concerns of that target group are. It’s member-centred trade unionism, if you will, reaching out into areas that have been resistant to or overlooked by more traditional trade unions. Taken together, they illustrate a renewed appetite for success in the UK labour movement.

As for our own group, Unions21, we have established our Commission on Collective Voice – a cross party, multi-disciplinary group to solicit, collect, evaluate, and advocate ways in which Collective Voice can work in the early 21st century. We are data gathering at present, with a publication date for our report of late spring 2019. You can contact us at worksforus@unions21.org.uk. We’d love to hear from you.

Download the complete report as a PDF

This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. The foundation's support is not tacit endorsement within.

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