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23 October 2019

How a new breed of trade union is leading the fight for precarious workers

While traditional trade unions face a declining and ageing membership, smaller bodies are organising groups to directly confront the issues of the gig economy.

By Imogen West-Knights

Millions of people in the UK are in work, but unable to afford the basic needs of life. Nearly two thirds of families living in poverty, as defined by the Social Metrics Commission, have at least one adult in work. Last year the TUC found that one in nine workers – nearly four million people – are in precarious work. The Resolution Foundation predicts that one in three millennials will still be renting in their old age. In previous decade, workers looked to trade unions for protection against low wages and insecurity, but membership of those unions has fallen precipitously. But the landscape of union organisation is changing to meet the challenges of the new economy, and new unions are arriving.

Forty years ago, trade unions were mammoths in the UK’s political landscape, representing more than twelve million of the country’s workers and wielding the power to bring down governments. But since 1979 membership has halved, hitting an all-time low in 2016, and the number of strike days taken has dropped from almost 30 million to around 170,000 in 2017.

The decline of big trade unions and mass strike action is partly due to anti-trade union laws passed by successive governments, but it is also a result of the failure of traditional unions to keep up with the times. Many unions still operate on models established when people tended to work in one career, and for a tangible employer as opposed to, say, being “self-employed” for a food delivery app. Workers with multiple and precarious jobs – one of the fastest growing parts of the UK labour force – have not been encouraged, and in some cases not been eligible, for membership.

Big unions can also be conservative in their outlook. Their priority has often been to use their resources to protect existing members, rather than to take on financial risk by working to protect new members. Alice Martin, Head of Work and Pay at the New Economics Foundation says that “years of attacks from government and from the media has put them in an institutionally defensive position.”

But not all trade unions are alike. A newer, scrappier breed of trade union has begun to emerge. Smaller, more radical unions such as United Voices of the World and its sister union, Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, established in 2014 and 2012 respectively, are helping support the workers that bigger, older unions have locked out. These organisations have already effected change, including victories for NHS couriers, Uber drivers and outsourced workers at the LSE.

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Jack Shenker is the author of Now We Have Your Attention, a new book about political life in modern Britain. He spent time working with UVW, and found it “completely different” to traditional union organizing – in which, he says, workers are often seen as “individuals that can occasionally be mobilised by an old-school trade union bureaucracy to secure specific concessions from employers”.

Rather than aligning themselves with a specific industry or sector, he says, UVW “see themselves as a movement that is linked in to a broader struggle, in relation to housing and to the stigmatisation of migrants”.

The reputation of new unions for bold, members-led campaigning is attractive to low-paid workers looking to unionise their workplaces. A woman in the process of organising the childcare agency she works for told me that UVW was the obvious choice: “I wanted a union that would actually act,” she said. “I didn’t want to get stuck in the bureaucracy of a big union”.

These fears are not unfounded. One of the strikers from the Picturehouse cinemas’ London Living Wage campaign told me that they often found their union, BECTU, frustrating: “BECTU had their own, conservative interpretation of the anti-trade union laws, which meant that sometimes we could only picket on the other side of the road from the cinema we were supposed to be disrupting. It’s hard enough organising a strike without having to fight against your union as well as your employer.”

This is not to say that big traditional unions aren’t pursuing any forward-thinking campaigns: Unite, the biggest union in the country, recently won un-paid wages for warehouse workers at Sports Direct, and the bakers’ union BFAWU were behind the “McStrike” campaign for fast food workers. But many of the more exciting battles are being fought by tiny, new unions with a fraction of the financial power of the more established bodies.

The rise of the new unions coincides with the development of new kinds of organisation. Callum Cant’s new book Riding for Deliveroo documents his experiences organising against the food delivery platform. He describes how riders organised to simply log off from the app in protest against low pay. Because Deliveroo does not recognise its riders as employees, they aren’t subject to legislation against wildcat strikes. Workers for UberEats pulled off a similar action.


However, even with these signs of life, unions in the UK face a looming problem: youth membership. Figures released by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy showed a very small rise in union membership for 16-19 year olds last year (up to 3.2 per cent in 2018 from 2 per cent in 2017), but the general picture of youth union membership is still bleak. Less than 10 per cent of workers under 24 are union members, and the decline in youth membership is sharper than the overall trend of membership decline over the past two decades.

This will have to change if trade unionism is to play a role in the future of work, and not everyone is optimistic it can be done. Gavin Kelly, chair of the Resolution Foundation, points out that “merely to compensate for the number of baby boomers we expect to retire during the 2020s, you would have to nearly double membership rates amongst younger workers”.

According to Resolution Foundation research, many young people either feel that they can’t afford to pay for trade union membership, or simply don’t know what trade unions are. The big unions are well aware of the need to attract new young members, Kelly says, “and there are people doing really important things. But is the scale of the response commensurate with the scale of the problem? Absolutely not, no.”

Alice Martin thinks unions must acknowledge that how people earn a living, and what they spend their wages on, is changing. For example, workers today have to spend more on housing: “if they want to be a major economic player today, unions know that it’s not enough to just bargain for more wages, particularly if this is limited to sectors that are already well unionised. As a movement they could end up running very fast to stay still.”

At the same time, however, there are many who feel we may be on the cusp of an increase in workplace organising – albeit one that will take place outside of traditional unions, by people previously thought to be “un-organisable”. There are many forms of mobilisation going on: wildcat walkouts, protests, occupations, publicity stunts, and flash mobs, “which are far more in the repertoire of these new, insurgent trade unions than they are in the repertoire of traditional trade unions,” Shenker tells me. These actions are not reflected in membership figures or official strike days, but they are happening.

Examples have now been set, by UVW and IWBG particularly, for how to tackle employment injustices that had previously seemed unsolvable, such as bringing disparate groups of outsourced staff in-house at large institutions. And in some ways, precarious workers are more likely to organise than their more secure counterparts, by virtue of their precarity itself. “There’s very little to risk”, Shenker argues, because “if you get fired from McDonald’s, you go across the road and get a job at Wetherspoons”.

In America, youth membership of unions is rising rapidly. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that between 2016 and 2017, the number of union members under 35 increased by nearly 400,000. “I can imagine something similar happening here”, says Martin. Although youth membership is still low in the UK, young people approve of unions in a way they haven’t in the past. A study by the Resolution Foundation found that, in answer to the question “would you say that you would never join a trade union?”, only one in ten millennials said yes, compared to over a quarter of baby boomers.

One potential sign of the future of union organising in the UK are the school climate strikes. School students in the UK have begun to protest against perceived injustice on an unprecedented scale, and striking is key to their activity. Will this translate into increased organising in the workplaces of the future? Callum Cant replies that, young or old, “we’re collectively coming to recognise that the only way for ordinary people to have a significant impact on politics is to, in polite terms, fuck shit up. The strike is one of the oldest and best ways of doing that.”